Iowa’s Joni Ernst is on the front lines of the latest biofuels fight

Source: By Abby Smith, Washington Examiner • Posted: Tuesday, June 16, 2020


Sen. Joni Ernst is gearing up for another round in the battle over the federal biofuels mandate, even if that fight puts her toe-to-toe with fellow members of the GOP and the Trump administration.

The Iowa Republican has been one of Congress’s staunchest supporters of the biofuels industry, always in the Trump administration’s ear to make sure the White House sticks to promises that President Trump made to Iowa farmers on the 2016 campaign trail.

But it hasn’t been easy. Ernst has often had to fight tooth and nail with her Republican colleagues. These oil-state senators would rather see a weaker Renewable Fuels Standard, the George W. Bush-era law that requires a certain amount of biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, to be blended into fuel supplies.

The Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t always held up its end of the bargain either.

Supreme Court lifts legal barrier for natural gas pipeline to run under Appalachian Trail

“We’ve got to continue holding their feet to the fire to get through COVID-19 and then get on with where we need to be in our biofuels industry,” Ernst told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview. Ernst, 49, is an Iowa native who served more than 23 years in the military before her election to the Senate in 2014.

Now, the RFS faces a critical test, putting Ernst again on the front lines of the biofuels fight.

Earlier this year, a federal court ruling pulled the rug out from under the EPA’s small-refinery exemption program, which had allowed the agency to exclude certain facilities from the biofuels blending requirements. The EPA must now decide how to implement the court’s ruling, putting it again in the middle of an escalating fight between big oil and big corn.

Oil refiners say the waiver program is vital because the RFS requirements are overly burdensome for small facilities. Biofuels producers, however, say the Trump administration abused its authority to grant exemptions, undercutting the entire RFS.

The coronavirus pandemic has only added fuel to the flames: Sharp decreases in gasoline demand amid lockdowns sent the oil industry into a tailspin and forced much of biofuels production to idle or significantly scale back capacity.

Several oil-state governors have asked the Trump administration to waive biofuels requirements this year, citing severe economic hardship.

In May, Ernst led two dozen bipartisan senators in sending a letter directly to Trump asking him to intervene and direct the EPA to reject those requests.

“I am confident that if they do grant a waiver that Sen. Grassley and I will come down with the full force of Grassley-Ernst against the EPA,” Ernst said. “It will not be pretty if they do that.”

Ernst hasn’t been afraid to make threats in the past. In 2017, when the EPA was weighing actions that would weaken the biofuels mandate, she singlehandedly held up Trump’s nominee to lead the agency’s air office until the administrator at the time, Scott Pruitt, committed in writing that he wouldn’t seek to reduce the biodiesel requirements.

“I know that they know we’re watching,” Ernst said. “This is an issue I’m very comfortable in talking to President Trump about, so I think if they are smart, they will watch their p’s and q’s and understand that the president has made a commitment to our nation to support the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

“If he doesn’t, Americans will be very disappointed,” she added.

Even when Ernst has celebrated victories for the biofuels sector, she’s had to remain vigilant to ensure that the Trump administration follows through. A year after the EPA officially allowed year-round sales of E15, a higher ethanol fuel blend, fulfilling a Trump campaign promise, she said she’s still waiting on the agency to eliminate warning labels.

When she pressed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on the issue during an oversight hearing last month, he said it was “more complicated” than he’d thought. Ernst said she was “absolutely not” satisfied with the response.

“There really is no excuse not to have the labeling done,” Ernst said.

Like the RFS, Ernst faces a critical test this year too. She’s up for reelection in November, and Democrats want to flip her seat.

Most election rating agencies say the contest is likely to “lean Republican” in Ernst’s favor, but it’s not a guarantee. A March poll from the Des Moines Register found Ernst’s approval rating among Iowans had dropped 10 percentage points, from 57% in February 2019 to 47% in early this year.

Ernst’s Democratic challenger, local businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, has the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.

“Iowans are already feeling the impacts of extreme weather fueled by the climate crisis, and they deserve a Senator who will take action, not one who continues to deny science,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV Action Fund’s vice president of government affairs, said in a statement when the group endorsed Greenfield in October.

In the interview, Ernst highlighted her work helping harden Iowa’s communities amid the intense floods they’ve experienced in recent years. Bipartisan water infrastructure legislation that cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously included Ernst’s provisions to make permanent the flood control measures that Iowa and other Midwest states have undertaken.

She also worked with Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth to craft provisions in bipartisan surface transportation legislation that would modernize the lock and dam systems in the Mississippi River, which Ernst said would significantly reduce transportation costs for commodities such as corn and soybeans.

Ernst said the Senate Republican conference has discussed combining the surface transportation and water infrastructure bills as well as a bill expanding broadband in rural areas.

“If we could put those three bills together, we would have one heck of a whopper of an infrastructure bill, and I think that we really all could get behind it,” she said.

Ernst is hopeful, too, that Congress could approve efforts she’s spearheaded to bolster workforce training for the wind energy sector.

She’s worked with Maine Sen. Angus King on the issue, and their amendment expanding training for onshore and offshore wind was included in broader bipartisan energy legislation earlier this year. However, discussions over that bill fell apart in March.

Nonetheless, though Ernst boasts of Iowa’s wind energy prowess — the state produces more than 40% of its power from wind — she didn’t join some of her Republican colleagues in advocating for tweaks to wind tax credit deadlines to account for coronavirus-related delays.

She also didn’t say whether she’d support making the wind credits accessible as direct payments, as the industry has requested, or simply extending the credits in the near term.

“We’re still having those conversations because the wind energy sector, just like every other sector, has really experienced some hardships,” Ernst said. “We haven’t decided on the right solution yet.”