Ted Cruz reportedly blocks Iowa ag secretary’s USDA appointment, heating up debate over renewable fuels

Source: By Joseph Morton, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Friday, October 27, 2017

WASHINGTON — Corn Belt lawmakers have reveled in recent success pressuring the Trump administration to support renewable fuels.

But now senators who represent states with refineries are mounting their own offensive — and apparently adopting some of the same hardball tactics.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for example, is blocking Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey’s nomination to a top post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a report in Politico.

A Cruz spokesman did not respond to a request for comment but his move appears to be a response to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who temporarily blocked the nomination of Bill Wehrum to a position at the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Ernst allowed Wehrum’s nomination to advance only after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wrote a letter supporting various policies favorable to renewable fuels.

Ernst questioned Cruz’s holding up Northey’s nomination, however, saying that Northey’s role at USDA would involve conservation programs and not anything related to the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“So why are they blocking him because of the RFS?” Ernst said. “Just because big oil doesn’t like it?”

Northey sailed through the Senate Agriculture Committee along with Nebraska Agriculture Department Director Greg Ibach, who was nominated to be USDA’s undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs.

But while the Senate confirmed Ibach by a simple unanimous consent motion on Thursday, Northey’s nomination is now stuck in limbo.

All four GOP senators from Nebraska and Iowa, as well as other Corn Belt lawmakers, met with Pruitt about concerns in the renewable fuels sector.

That included worries that the agency would set RFS volume levels too low for biodiesel, allow exported ethanol to count toward the domestic requirements and shift the burden of meeting RFS requirements from refiners and importers to blenders.

Pruitt’s letter reassured the senators on all those fronts and pledged to work with Congress on proposals to allow blends of 15 percent ethanol to be sold year-round.

Now oil-and-gas folks are pushing back at what they view as strong-arm tactics by the Midwesterners.

Reuters reported that a group of senators from refinery states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania wrote to the White House advocating for an RFS overhaul.

And they suggested a sit-down with administration officials and Midwest senators in an effort to make a deal.

Asked about that letter and the prospect for a face-to-face negotiating session, Ernst was defiant.

“The law is the law,” Ernst said. “And the Renewable Fuel Standard is the law.”

Federal policies on renewable fuels have a big impact on the economies of Iowa and Nebraska, the nation’s two top ethanol states.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., told reporters Thursday that Nebraska’s 25 ethanol plants represent billions of dollars in capital investment and support many jobs.

And Fischer vowed to continue the fight.

“If the Texas senators want to step up, they’ll be met with the two Nebraska senators and the two Iowa senators stepping up, too,” Fischer said. “The RFS is important. It’s important to the state of Nebraska, and it is important to this country.”