Top EPA official to be grilled over RFS management 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 15, 2015

U.S. EPA’s top air official this week will face tough questioning on her agency’s management of the federal renewable fuel standard.

Janet McCabe, the agency’s acting air chief, is scheduled to testify on the RFS before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.

The hearing Thursday will be the first time this year that a congressional committee has taken up the RFS. Likely to be front and center at the hearing are the struggles EPA has had with setting the yearly mandates for conventional ethanol and advanced biofuels through the RFS program.

Congress attached the renewable fuel standard to the Clean Air Act in 2007 as a means of increasing energy independence and lowering transportation’s carbon footprint. Through the program, refiners are required to use increasing amounts of renewable fuels, with the goal of having the amount of non-food advanced biofuels used in the country to eventually surpass corn ethanol.

While Congress laid out targets for biofuel use through 2022, the law requires EPA to issue an annual rulemaking to set the final mandates for most renewable fuels by Nov. 30 of the preceding year. The target for biodiesel is supposed to be set 14 months before the year begins.

EPA, though, has yet to issue final standards for 2014 or 2015 and is also late on the biodiesel targets for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The agency pulled back from a proposal last year calling for cuts to the 2014 mandates after receiving pushback and about 340,000 public comments.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee, has been highly critical of the delays and has called for full repeal of the standard. Last December, he grilled McCabe at a hearing on the decision to withdraw the 2014 proposal and vowed to keep pressure on the agency over the issue.

“The renewable fuel standard mandates are unrealistic and have been mismanaged from the start,” he said in a May statement.

In an effort to put the program back on track, EPA late last month released a proposal that would set refiners’ biofuel mandates for 2014 through 2016, as well as the biodiesel target for 2017. The agency said it would finalize the targets by Nov. 30.

McCabe recently called the proposal an “ambitious” plan but one that was in line with market realities. It calls for increasing levels of biofuels, but falls shy of the numbers that Congress wrote into the 2007 statute.

“The proposed volumes reflect various factors in the market that convince us both that renewable fuels are being produced and used in increasing volumes and that there are limits to amounts of volumes that can be supplied,” McCabe said (Greenwire, May 29).

But the proposal — which was published last week in the Federal Register — has already come under fire by both biofuel producers and opponents of the RFS, and EPA faces an uphill road in the coming months to finalize it by Nov. 30. Industry watchers think the agency will face lawsuits as soon as it’s finalized.

Biofuel producers have complained that the targets lowball their expected production, while refiners say the proposal will cause them to breach the blend wall, or the technical limit to the amount of ethanol that can be used in gasoline, in 2016.

Lankford said the uncertainty over the annual mandates has created “great challenges for blenders and biofuel producers.”

EPA’s proposal “represents an unattainable increase in renewables into our gasoline supply over the next two years,” he said. “The EPA was tasked by a previous Congress to manage an unrealistic and unattainable program, and it is now Congress’ responsibility to pass legislation to unwind this mess.”

Subcommittee ranking member Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a strong supporter of the RFS, has also been critical of EPA’s handling of the program. Heitkamp says the agency’s delays have particularly hampered the biodiesel industry, which produces fuel out of soybean oil, used animal fats and cooking grease.

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, June 18, at 9:30 a.m. in 342 Dirksen.

Witness: Janet McCabe, EPA acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation.