Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in January called on the President to rid his Cabinet of Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, if he did not uphold the Renewable Fuel Standard’s blending obligations. On Thursday, Ernst described a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing with Wheeler as “frustrating.”
“I learned very little that is new,” Ernst said on a conference call with reporters. “And it just seems like the EPA continues to drag its feet, and so we will continue pushing on these issues.”
Ernst’s threat to advocate for the ouster of Wheeler was conditioned on an RFS rule that requires oil refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of biofuels into the gasoline supply in 2020. Refiners have consistently fought the rule, leading to an unprecedented number of Small Refinery Exemptions granted to oil companies to rid them of the compliance obligation. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Big Oil has argued the current drop in gasoline consumption has made meeting the RFS rule untenable.
“I just reminded him [Wheeler], certainly, that they need to uphold the RFS as they’re working through various refinery exemptions — whatever it might happen to be — to make sure they are following precedent that’s been set in past years and following the letter of the law as it was written in a bipartisan way by Democrats and Republicans,” Ernst said.
Ernst, who voted in February 2019 in favor of Wheeler to lead the EPA, has been a relentless critic of the former coal lobbyist as he works to undermine Iowa’s biofuels industry.
Under Wheeler and President Trump’s leadership, the EPA has granted at least 85 waivers to oil refineries, resulting in more than 4 billion gallons lost of renewable fuel. Biofuels plants in Iowa and across the country have shut down due to the drop in demand for ethanol, a situation made even more dire by the pandemic.
Iowa State University professors estimate the outbreak of COVID-19 will lead to more than $2.5 billion in overall annual damage to Iowa’s ethanol industry and a $347 million loss due to decreasing ethanol prices.
An analysis from the Renewable Fuels Association published in April says those losses could soar to $10 billion nationwide.
When asked whether Trump’s promise of regulatory relief during the pandemic could incentivize oil companies to ignore the RFS, Ernst told reporters she and other like-minded senators will “keep an eye on that.”
“I say it all the time, whenever we see a small victory it doesn’t mean we have to lessen our vigilance,” Ernst said. “We always have to keep our eyes open, understanding that the pressure from those oil state members of Congress is going to be significant and we can exert significant pressure as well from these biofuels senators.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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