Government

Finkenauer, Loebsack call for probe of EPA biofuel waivers

The exemptions let refineries forego blending in renewable fuels

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks Jan. 16 during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in Washington. Iowa Democratic U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack are asking for a review of biofuel waivers granted by Wheeler’s agency. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks Jan. 16 during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in Washington. Iowa Democratic U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack are asking for a review of biofuel waivers granted by Wheeler’s agency. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Democratic U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack are calling for a review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s granting of waivers that exempt small oil refineries from complying with the nation’s biofuel law.

Finkenauer and Loebsack want the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the waiver program is being applied under the Renewable Fuel Standard, which generally requires refineries to blend renewable sources — including corn-based ethanol — into the nation’s fuel supply or to buy credits instead.

“Our concerns stem from the economic consequences to our rural communities created by exempting nearly 4 billion gallons of fuel from the RFS, a standard intended to expand the nation’s renewable fuels sector,” they wrote in a letter to Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general. “By 2016, the ethanol industry has grown to support over 339,000 U.S. jobs and driven $41 billion in economic activity by supporting corn and soy markets and reducing gasoline prices.”

Finkenauer, Loebsack and other members of the bipartisan House Biofuels Caucus, including Iowa Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, have joined Republican U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst in criticizing the waivers they say hurt the renewable fuel industry in the state.

“They screwed us,” Grassley said last week when asked about the latest round of waivers — 31 — granted by the EPA. In addition to the number of waivers, “it’s that it is being granted to people that really aren’t (experiencing) hardship, and that is where it ought to be identified.”

The fuel standard allows the EPA to provide waivers to small refineries that demonstrate compliance with the rule would create significant economic hardship for the facility. Between 2013 and 2015, the EPA granted no more than eight waivers in a year, according to Loebsack and Finkenauer. But the EPA retroactively approved 19 waivers for 2016, then proceeded to grant 35 waivers in 2017, which is equal to removing a total of 1.82 billion gallons of renewable fuel in 2017 alone.

“With the recent approval of 31 waivers for 2018, it is imperative that we fully understand how EPA is reaching these conclusions despite (the Department of Energy’s) viability analysis,” wrote Finkenauer, who represents the 20-county northeast Iowa 1st District. Loebsack represents the 24-county southeast Iowa 2nd District.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth asked the inspector general’s office to launch an independent investigation into whether top EPA officials violated the law by inappropriately exempting a number of oil refineries from having to use legally required levels of biofuel.

In granting waivers, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has suggested that the EPA follows the recommendations of the Energy Department. However, a letter from the department to Grassley admitted that the EPA granted at least one waiver in conflict with the agency’s recommendation.

Due to the process used by the EPA to review waiver applications, it’s unknown how many of the recent 31 exemptions are being granted to large and profitable oil companies.

ExxonMobil and Chevron are among those that received these economic hardship exemptions.

• Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.