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Ethanol backers prod administration to ‘finish the job’

“It’s time for the administration to finish the job,” said Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

A week after the EPA denied 54 retroactive waivers from the ethanol mandate, farm and biofuel groups urged the Trump administration on Wednesday to take additional steps to assure ethanol’s role in the U.S. fuel supply. Their checklist included release of the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2021 and nationwide application of a court decision that greatly restricts RFS exemptions.

“It’s time for the administration to finish the job,” said Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. Added Anne Steckel, of the National Farmers Union, “We feel EPA needs to follow the letter of the law on the RFS.”

The ethanol industry says that over the years, “hardship” waivers granted to small-volume oil refiners have reduced the market for ethanol by 4 billion gallons by freeing those companies from the obligation to either mix ethanol into gasoline or buy biofuel credits known as RINs to bring them into RFS compliance. EPA approval of RFS exemptions mushroomed after President Trump took office.

“I would say the unfortunate reality is that the Environmental Protection Agency has so badly mismanaged the RFS over the past three and a half years,” said Brian Jennings, head of the American Coalition for Ethanol. Iowa farmer Kevin Ross, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said there was “real uncertainty” in corn country over 33 exemptions that have been requested by refiners for 2019 and 2020 sales.

Also on the EPA’s agenda is a decision on 14 “retro-exemptions” under review by the Energy Department. Refiners filed for retroactive waivers following the January 23 decision by a U.S. appeals court in Denver that the EPA can award waivers only to refiners that held an exemption in the previous year. “The EPA needs to reject those petitions the instant they come through the door,” said the RFA’s Cooper.

During a teleconference, the four groups, plaintiffs in the appellate court case, said the EPA should apply the ruling nationwide. They also said the EPA has made little progress on a year-old agreement, refereed by Trump, that calls for the EPA to ensure “more than 15 billion gallons of conventional (corn) ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply beginning in 2020. … This will include accounting for relief expected to be provided for small refineries.”

The pandemic has slashed gasoline — and ethanol — consumption this year. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler pointed to the complications of the pandemic and declined last month to predict when the RFS for 2021 would be announced. Ordinarily, the RFS is proposed at midyear and the EPA finalizes it by late fall. The statutory target for corn ethanol consumption is 15 billion gallons a year.

According to a weekly Energy Department report, ethanol production slowed to 38 million gallons a day, its lowest output since June, in the week ending September 18. The four-week average for production was equivalent to an annual total of 14.2 billion gallons. In 2019, more than 9% of U.S. ethanol, or 1.47 billion gallons, was exported.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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