At the same time Sen. Joni Ernst is promoting her tough talk against the Environmental Protection Agency and its antagonism toward the ethanol industry, campaign finance records show the Iowa senator has accepted thousands of dollars from a large oil company that is skirting a renewable fuels law.
Between 2014 and 2019, Federal Election Commission filings show Ernst received $9,000 from the political action committee and CEO of Tesoro Corp., also known as Andeavor, one of the nation’s largest oil refining companies.
In June 2014, Tesoro Petroleum Corps. PAC donated $5,000 to then-candidate Ernst. In Nov. 2016, Ernst took $1,500 from Gregory Goff, the corporation’s CEO and chairman. In May 2019, Goff made two contributions to Ernst’s campaign totaling $2,500.
In April 2018, Reuters reported that Andeavor — which merged with Marathon Petroleum in 2018 — received Renewable Fuel Standard small refinery waivers for three of its refineries, prompting the National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association to criticize the Trump Administration for allowing its EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, to openly flout the RFS.
Small refinery exemptions are meant to benefit small oil refiners that would face “disproportionate economic hardship” if they were required to meet biofuels blending requirements mandated in the RFS.
“This improper application of the small refinery hardship exemption is yet another example of EPA actions that destroy demand for ethanol and corn,” Kevin Skunes, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said at the time.
The Iowa Biofuels Association called out Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley directly, asking them to “help us protect the RFS from this insidious attack.”
Even Ernst criticized the waivers granted to Andeavor, noting the company’s $1.5 billion in profits in 2017 and the “unprecedented manner” in which the EPA was issuing refinery waivers.
Accepting campaign donations from oil executives and their PACs is not new for Ernst, but given her rhetoric around Wheeler and the 85 small refinery exemptions granted to oil refining companies during the Trump Administration, accepting campaign contributions from a known RFS opponent could complicate her pro-ethanol message.
In 2014, Goff was a leader among oil company executives who penned a letter to then-President Obama urging him to sign off on a proposed rule “that would roll back the nation’s biofuel blending targets.”
Theresa Greenfield, Ernst’s Democratic opponent in the U.S. Senate race, has made the Wheeler controversy part of her campaign, recently calling on him to resign and asking Ernst to join her in that plea.
Greenfield repeatedly has pointed out that Ernst voted in 2019 to confirm Wheeler, despite his background as a coal lobbyist. Ernst also supported Scott Pruitt’s confirmation in 2017, even though as attorney general of Oklahoma he was well-known for being cozy with oil and natural gas companies.
“Everybody should be asking: Sen. Ernst, why did you vote for Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA?” Greenfield asked. “For me, one of the reasons I think is because she’s accepted over $400,000 in donations, campaign donations and contributions, from Big Oil.”
Seemingly in an effort to back up her tough talk on Wheeler, last week Ernst said she would not support the nomination of Doug Benevento to be the EPA’s deputy administrator because “Iowa’s hardworking ethanol and biodiesel producers are sick of being yanked around by Andrew Wheeler and the EPA.”
Ernst’s refusal to support Benevento’s nomination has kept him from getting a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“Our producers need certainty,” Ernst said in a statement; “until we get that, no EPA nominee is getting my vote.”
It’s this simple: @EPAAWheeler needs to follow the law, and stop hurting hardworking Iowa farmers. Our producers need certainty; until we get that, no EPA nominee is getting my vote. https://t.co/TWxOILliJ5
— Joni Ernst (@joniernst) June 29, 2020
“Sen. Ernst’s attempts at distraction don’t do anything to protect the Iowa farmers and biofuels producers who continue to struggle as the EPA threatens to green-light another 52 RFS waivers,” Greenfield spokesperson Izzi Levy said. “Iowans aren’t interested in Ernst’s political games — they just want to know why she keeps siding with her Big Oil donors at the expense of our farm economy.”
Iowa Democrats also have pointed out past statements she made on the RFS during her first Senate campaign. In 2014, Ernst’s campaign told news outlets that “from a philosophical standpoint, she does not believe in taxpayer subsidies” but would “passionately stand in defense of the RFS” until federal subsidies were ended across the board.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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