New EPA chief aims to balance ethanol, oil interests; could pursue changes to ethanol mandate

New EPA chief aims to balance ethanol, oil interests; could pursue changes to ethanol mandate
Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler (The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said this week that he could pursue changes to the federal ethanol mandates that have been such an economic driver for corn belt states such as Nebraska and Iowa.

“When everybody’s complaining about a program from every side, then we ought to take a look and figure out if there’s a way to make the program better, and I’m certainly open to trying to make the program better,” Wheeler told reporters.

Wheeler stressed that the agency must ensure it’s following both the letter and spirit of the law. He rejected making changes to ethanol policy in piecemeal fashion.

Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt, angered ethanol producers and their lawmakers with his attempts to overhaul the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS requires a certain amount of ethanol and other biofuels be used every year.

The refineries responsible for using ethanol have asked for relief saying the mandates are an economic burden on them, while ethanol interests say President Donald Trump needs to make good on campaign trail commitments to support biofuels.

Now both sides are looking to get a read on Wheeler.

The new administrator discussed his RFS views before a Tuesday announcement that the agency was finalizing approval of renewable fuels derived from sorghum, a move welcomed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

The administrator was joined at the announcement by Pawnee City, Nebraska, sorghum farmer Don Bloss, who said he hopes that new rule will encourage plants in Nebraska to use sorghum and increase demand for the crop.

Also at the announcement was Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who said more Nebraska farmers are raising sorghum.

With depressed commodity prices, tight margins and uncertainty surrounding international trade, our farmers are feeling anxious,” Fischer said.

In that environment, the RFS provides much-needed certainty for farmers and biofuels producers, she said, noting Nebraska’s 25 ethanol plants and their annual production capacity of more than 2 billion gallons.

Corn growers and ethanol producers viewed Pruitt as trying to undermine ethanol’s economic success story, however, and were particularly alarmed by his granting of refinery waivers that reduced the amount of ethanol blended into the fuel supply.

Wheeler offered a general defense of such exemptions, saying they are part of the law. He said it was a shock to the system because the previous administration had not implemented the waiver program.

The agency will look at ways to provide more transparency to the waiver program, he said. But he also suggested there could still be a deal struck between refiners and ethanol interests.

Asked about the biggest difference between himself and Pruitt on the issue, Wheeler cited his long history with the RFS.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wheeler has made pro-ethanol statements but so did Pruitt before his confirmation. Still, Grassley said, “Wheeler does not seem to have the ties to an oil state that Pruitt had.”

And Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, also sounded cautiously optimistic.

“Mr. Wheeler is viewed as someone with less of a personal agenda here. Time will tell.”

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