Opinion: Joe Biden’s EPA is headed in the right direction on biofuels

Source: By Geoff Cooper, Des Moines Register • Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2022

My job as an unapologetic advocate for ethanol is to call balls and strikes as I see them.

When campaigning in Iowa in 2020, President Joe Biden told voters, “The Renewable Fuels Standard marks our bond with farmers and our commitment to a thriving rural economy.” He criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for “undercutting the RFS” and launching a “full-on assault on the ethanol industry.”

Biden was referring to the fact that Trump’s EPA had secretly granted so-called “hardship exemptions” to roughly one-third of the nation’s oil refineries (even some owned by giants like Exxon Mobil and Chevron), allowing them to ignore their legal obligations to blend billions of gallons of renewable fuels.

Following the election, Trump’s EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, dialed up the chaos and disorder around the RFS. He shirked his legal responsibility to issue 2021 RFS blending requirements; he ignored Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at bringing more transparency to RFS decisions; he tried to ram through another round of refinery exemptions the day before Biden’s inauguration; and he left dozens more exemption petitions undecided.

In other words, Trump’s EPA left a Texas-sized mess for the incoming Biden administration to clean up on the RFS.

The scale of that mess became quickly apparent to Biden’s new EPA officials as they began to settle in this year. In March, new EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters, “We’ll be working this year to get the RFS program back on track,” and he pledged that “more transparency” and “more certainty” were in the offing. Regan repeated those commitments in May when he visited one of our association’s member companies, Lincolnway Energy, near Nevada, Iowa.

So, how are Biden and Regan doing on the RFS? Are they honoring their pledges to put the RFS back on track? Are they upholding their bond with farmers?

After nearly a year of uncertainty and apprehension, we finally got some answers to those questions on Dec. 7 when EPA released an expansive package of proposed regulatory actions on the RFS. In short, while it isn’t perfect, we believe the new package seeks to make good on many of the Biden administration’s RFS pledges. In our view, the proposals represent an important step forward for ethanol producers, farmers, and consumers in Iowa and across the nation.

First, EPA is proposing to deny all 65 refinery exemption petitions that were pending at the time of the announcement. EPA correctly notes that the refiners applying for exemptions have not sufficiently demonstrated that the RFS is causing them economic hardship. If finalized, these denials would protect blending requirements for roughly 2.6 billion gallons of renewable fuel — equivalent to more than half of Iowa’s annual production. Moreover, EPA is proposing to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouded the refinery exemption program in the past.

Second, EPA is planning to set the 2022 RFS requirement for conventional biofuels at 15 billion gallons, the statutory level specified by Congress in 2007. By comparison, after accounting for refinery exemptions, the RFS volumes enforced by Trump’s EPA averaged only about 13.5 billion gallons per year.

Third, as ordered by a federal court in 2017, EPA is proposing to finally restore 500 million gallons of biofuel blending requirements illegally waived by the Obama administration in 2016. Despite our numerous requests (and even legal action), Trump’s EPA repeatedly refused to reinstate that volume.

While these steps all are positive, EPA’s package does include some frustrating and confusing aspects. The most glaring fault is the inexplicable proposal to reach back in time and lower the 2020 RFS volumes. The agency — which has previously said it does not have the legal authority to make retroactive changes to finalized standards — is attempting to justify a revision to the 2020 requirement by pointing at COVID’s effect on fuel demand. But the 2020 RFS requirement had already automatically adjusted lower to account for reduced fuel demand. We will continue to remind EPA that no additional cut to the 2020 volume is necessary or legally permissible.

But aside from the proposal to revisit the 2020 standard, EPA’s new package could indeed help put the RFS “back on track” and set our industry up for growth in 2022 and beyond.

My job as an unapologetic advocate for ethanol is to call balls and strikes as I see them, without regard to which political party is pitching. When the Obama administration lowered the 2014-2016 RFS requirements, we cried foul, sued EPA, and won. When Trump’s EPA doled out refinery exemptions like 99-cent stocking stuffers, we called them on it, sued EPA, and won again.

Regardless of who is sitting in the White House, my organization’s mission is to ensure the RFS is enforced in a manner that follows the law and provides growth opportunities for America’s ethanol producers. So far, with the exception of its puzzling proposal to reopen the 2020 standards, it appears that Biden’s administration is headed in the right direction on the RFS.

Geoff Cooper, a Drake University alumnus, is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. 

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