Free-market group sues Trump admin for RFS records

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Foes of federal biofuel mandates are suing the Department of Agriculture to obtain records that could shed light on the department’s backroom role promoting those policies.

The Institute for Energy Research filed an open records lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, trying to force USDA to quickly comply with a months-old request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The free-market group believes public records may show undue influence by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Stephen Censky, who built a 20-year career with the American Soybean Association before joining the Trump administration, IER President Thomas Pyle told E&E News. Biofuel mandates under the renewable fuel standard are overseen by EPA, under consultation with the Department of Energy.

“That feels conflicting to me,” Pyle said of Censky’s involvement.

The request for records comes as the Trump administration considers moves that could boost biofuels, including ethanol made from corn and biodiesel made from soybeans. Among the ideas is increasing the required biofuel volumes for next year beyond the amounts EPA has already proposed; a report by Bloomberg News yesterday cited an administration document indicating a 5% increase is possible.

IER originally requested the documents in May, Pyle said.

Ethanol backers have also urged the administration to require refineries that haven’t been exempted to blend more ethanol, to make up for the lost volumes.

Those moves are a response to criticism the administration has taken for granting economic hardship exemptions under the RFS to 31 small refineries, meaning they don’t have to comply with biofuel blending requirements or buy renewable fuel credits.

Involvement by USDA has become a sore point with the petroleum industry and its backers, who see Censky and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue overstepping their authority. While USDA plays an advisory role in aspects of the RFS, the process for exemptions, spelled out in the RFS law and regulations, doesn’t include the Agriculture Department.

Censky and Perdue have frequently spoken in favor of increased biofuel volumes in public statements, including criticizing hardship exemptions for undermining demand for ethanol.

There’s a difference, Pyle said, between USDA officials expressing concern about how the program is being implemented and “taking over the program” through heavy involvement. A memo from Perdue to President Trump last month indicated that the discussions include himself, EPA, DOE and Ambassador to China Terry Branstad — a reflection of how the action on biofuels is also entangled in Trump’s trade fight with China and the resulting tariffs on U.S. farm goods (Greenwire, Aug. 23).

In managing the conflict, the administration has made decisions that alternately satisfy either biofuel advocates or RFS critics. At Trump’s direction, EPA earlier this year lifted summer restrictions on the sale of higher-ethanol fuel called E15, a top priority for ethanol backers including the National Corn Growers Association.

Pyle criticized the back-and-forth approach with a historical reference to World War II.

“You can’t do appeasement,” Pyle said. “President Trump can’t be Neville Chamberlain with the corn lobby. He has to be Winston Churchill.”