Staff Columnist

Trump's EPA needs to discuss its waivers

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 21, 2018.  (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 21, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In addition to ongoing debate over the farm bill, Iowans need to pay attention to the Trump administration’s recent announcement of target volumes for the Renewable Fuel Standard, and what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says isn’t up for discussion.

Proposed renewable volume standards for 2019, announced Tuesday by the EPA, boost every category of biofuels with the exception of corn ethanol. Overall, the figures represent about a 3 percent bump in total volume. For corn ethanol, however, the story is mostly one of the status quo, until you read further into the announcement.

“The EPA has granted exemptions pursuant to this process in the past,” the agency states.

“The EPA is maintaining its approach that any exemptions for 2019 are granted after the final rule is released and will not be reflected in the percentage standards that apply to all gasoline and diesel fuel produced or imported in 2019. EPA is not soliciting comments on how small refinery exemptions are accounted for in the percentage standards formulas ... and any such comments will be deemed beyond the scope of this rule-making.”

The Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, requires refineries to cover costs associated with blending corn ethanol into gasoline. A process within RFS allows the EPA, advised by the federal energy department, to exempt small refineries from this obligation. Such waivers can save refineries millions each year, but are supposed to be limited to refineries in financial straits or, as the law puts it, instances in which compliance would cause “a disproportionate economic hardship.”

Proponents of corn ethanol, many of them in Iowa, say the standard of financial hardship is not being applied, refineries that do not require waivers are receiving them and that the situation is resulting in millions of lost revenue.

Statistics support the ethanol advocates. Under EPA head Scott Pruitt, the agency has issued more than two dozen of these waivers in recent months, which roughly triples what was typical in previous administrations. And, according to a Reuters investigation, the agency has done so over the recommendations of the energy department.

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U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has called on Pruitt to disclose details of how waivers are being determined. As no response has been forthcoming, Grassley also has threatened to call for Pruitt’s resignation if he does not halt the waivers. Grassley wants what many Corn Belt lawmakers want: changes in the RFS targets that would replace the ethanol lost from existing waivers, and better insights into the waiver process.

The EPA target announcement, alongside its overt refusal to accept comments connected to waivers, make clear that Pruitt and the Trump administration don’t want to talk about it.

That’s not only a financial sore spot for ethanol supporters — trade groups estimate 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol have gone unblended — but a political wound for Grassley and other Midwestern lawmakers who supported President Donald Trump, predicated on campaign promises to protect agriculture’s investment in the RFS.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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