Without a grand deal, Trump tries to dodge ethanol question

Source: By James Osborn, Houston Choncile • Posted: Monday, September 7, 2020

President Donald J. Trump getting a tour of the Orange County command center for Hurricane Laura from Orange County Judge John Gothia, not in picture, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Orange.
President Donald J. Trump getting a tour of the Orange County command center for Hurricane Laura from Orange County Judge John Gothia, not Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

WASHINGTON — Upon entering the White House almost four years ago, President Donald Trump promised to employ his self-declared dealmaker’s acumen in cutting a deal to end the yearslong conflict between corn farmers and oil refiners over federal ethanol mandates.

But bridging that divide has proved far more difficult than Trump seemed to initially estimate. And with the election just two months away, all signs are Trump is trying to push back a decision on the how much ethanol to blend into the nation’s gasoline supply until after the ballots are cast, so as not to alienate voters in battleground states — whether its oil and gas workers in Pennsylvania and Texas or corn farmers in the Midwest.

That has left both sides obviously frustrated, with one consultant to refining interests in Washington complaining privately this week, “the administration is waffling back and forth.”

“We were told we were getting this and then it was that,” they said. “They were going to solve this and then they weren’t.”

On HoustonChronicle.com: With flood of EPA waivers, refineries find way around ethanol mandate

Trump’s approach from that start has been to give both sides some concession, in hopes they would put aside their differences.

In 2018 it came out that the Environmental Protection Agency had begun issuing waivers to oil refineries, allowing them not to blend as much ethanol into the gasoline they sold and bolstering their profits.

When the ethanol lobbyists became enraged, the EPA then announced it would allow the sale of gasoline with a higher concentration of ethanol than had previously been allowed — branded E15 for its 15 percent ethanol content.

But with corn farmers losing billion gallons of ethanol demand to refinery waivers each year — out of a mandate currently set at 15 billion gallons — they were far from asuaged.

When Trump last month visited the small town of Manakota, Minn., near the heart of the Midwestern corn belt, he was met with a front page ad asking readers to, “Tell the EPA to stop handing out waivers and uphold the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

Under pressure from Midwestern Republicans, Trump promised last year to make up the difference.

But how? He could raise mandates on refineries not receiving waivers, but that risked angering politicians from oil-rich states like Texas.

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So far the president’s approach has been to not commit to anything, hoping to leave the problem until after the election. And it could be working.

With Biden so far uncommitted on what his ethanol policy would be, voters in both corn states and oil and gas states are left without a clear savior.

This week a Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Pennsylvania, which has seen the economies of its western counties boom under shale gas drilling over the past decade, found Biden’s lead statewide had fallen from 13 percent in July to just 4 percent, statistically a tie.

 

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