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EPA approves three RFS waivers in final hours

Administrator Wheeler gives final approval for demand equivalent of 260 million ethanol gallons.

Jacqui Fatka

January 20, 2021

4 Min Read
CUTTING ETHANOL: As a last act as EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler issued waivers for 2018 and 2019 ethanol use for a a few refiners, cutting demand for the renewable fuel.Willie Vogt

As earlier feared, the Environmental Protection Agency granted three small refinery exemptions, or waivers, for 2019 Renewable Fuel Standard blending and one SRE for 2018. The ethanol industry has already vowed to challenge the Trump administration’s action in court.

The waivers issued Jan. 19 roughly account for 260 million ethanol equivalent gallons. Several biofuels groups, along with bipartisan lawmakers in both the House and Senate, urged the Trump Administration against taking this action. In addition, Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper notified Wheeler of RFA’s intent to legally challenge any waivers issued in the final days of the Trump presidency.

In action Tuesday evening, EPA granted two 2019 exemptions, erasing another 150 million gallons of renewable fuel demand. In what the RFA said was “unbelievably,” the Agency also appears to have reversed a 2018 petition that was initially denied, resulting in an additional loss of 110 million gallons of renewable volume blending. EPA’s action brings the total of SREs granted by the Trump Administration to 88, totaling 4.3 billion gallons of biofuel blending demand destroyed.  

Related: Rumors of last-minute RFS waivers concerning

“This midnight-hour attempt by the Trump administration to damage the Renewable Fuel Standard and sabotage the ethanol industry’s recovery from the COVID pandemic simply cannot be allowed to prevail,” Cooper says. “With just hours remaining in his shameful term as EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler couldn’t stop himself from doling out a few more Clean Air Act compliance exemptions to his well-connected friends.”

National Corn Growers Association President John Linder says EPA’s action shouldn’t be a surprise to those who have been paying attention for the last four years that this EPA would undermine corn farmers and the ethanol market on its way out the door. “There is no reason for the EPA to take this action now, especially with the Supreme Court set to consider the Tenth Circuit ruling in the new term,” Linder says.

The waivers come less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will review the Tenth Circuit Court’s decision in RFA et al. v. EPA, which found EPA had exceeded its statutory authority in granting three exemptions. Previously, Wheeler had claimed EPA would not decide any pending waiver petitions until any and all appeals of the Tenth Circuit decision were resolved.

Related: Supreme Court will review case on small refinery exemptions

Cooper states, “The action by EPA is completely without legal merit. It flouts both the statute and recent court decisions that clearly limit EPA’s authority and ability to grant these exemptions.

“In the past, Administrator Wheeler has asserted that the ‘appeals process needs to play out’ before EPA will decide the SRE petitions,” Cooper continues. “Unfortunately, hypocrisy has been the hallmark of the Trump administration’s EPA, which right to the end has demonstrated its fealty to the nation’s largest polluters, while showing nothing but disdain for America’s hard-working farmers and producers of homegrown renewable fuels.”

Hopeful better days are ahead

Biofuel supporters offered some optimism that the incoming Biden administration would quickly right the wrongs done under the Trump administration’s EPA regarding the implementation of the RFS.

Cooper states, “While this action comes as one last sucker punch from the Trump administration, we are confident it will be a hollow victory for the politically connected oil companies receiving today’s waivers, as the new Biden Administration will most certainly act quickly to restore the volumes erased by these waivers.”

Related: Ag CEO Council optimistic after meeting with EPA nominee

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor says farm families and biofuel workers across the country have worked tirelessly to make a living over the past few months despite a global pandemic. And yet, the Trump Administration’s SRE abuse has piled on to the uncertainty and difficulty that rural Americans are facing every day. 

“Given President-elect Biden’s commitments on the campaign trail, we‘re confident his incoming team will swiftly work to reverse the damage these oil handouts have done to rural America by this midnight maneuvering,” Skor says.  

NCGA says it looks forward to working with the Biden Administration to “rectify the harm caused by this EPA’s abuse of small refinery exemptions and restore the integrity of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” says Linder. "Corn farmers need an EPA that will follow the law as written and intended by Congress."


About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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