Iowa Democrats have made the Renewable Fuel Standard and ethanol industry a central part of their campaign against Joni Ernst this month as they work to paint the first-term senator as an ineffective politician who has not delivered for a key constituency: farmers.
Theresa Greenfield, Democrats’ candidate for U.S. Senate, has worked to connect the hardships of Iowa’s ethanol industry to Ernst’s vote for EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, labeling small refinery waivers as “Ernst ethanol waivers.”
Greenfield has called on Wheeler to resign and asked Ernst to join her in that plea, to no avail.
In January, Ernst told reporters she would ask President Trump to “fire” Wheeler if he did not comply with the RFS rule to blend 15 billion gallons of ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply this year.
When asked last month if she wanted Wheeler, whom she voted to confirm in 2019, to resign, Ernst demurred.
“He is following the letter of the law but he’s really walking a tight rope with the spirit of the law,” Ernst told Iowa reporters. “So, that’s where we are getting into an argument. I had quite a lengthy discussion with him over those ‘gap’ SREs and I told him he just needs to throw them in the garbage.”
During Trump’s presidency, the EPA has issued an unprecedented 85 refinery exemptions for oil companies that claim they would face significant hardship if required to blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuel supply. Now, the EPA is considering granting 52 retroactive waivers for oil companies claiming economic hardship in past years.
“These waivers are backdated to 2011, allowing oil industry giants to retroactively circumvent critical RFS requirements,” farmers and biofuels leaders wrote in a letter to Ernst. “This is unacceptable.”
The 17 Iowans who signed the letter, including Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge and farmers from Clear Lake, Atlantic and Rippey, asked Ernst to call for Wheeler’s “immediate resignation.”
“While calling for this urgent step cannot reverse the damage caused by the vote to confirm Andrew Wheeler in the first place, demanding Wheeler’s resignation is a critical test of your commitment to Iowa’s farmers and biofuel industry,” the letter says.
“Iowa’s biofuel industry is closing in on a point of breaking beyond repair. The time for promises and talk is over,” the Iowans wrote. “Over 150 biofuel plants have reduced or halted production amid unprecedented hardship, and farm bankruptcies are at an eight-year high. Every additional day Administrator Wheeler holds power is another turn of the screw against an industry on the brink of collapse.”
When pressed by Iowa Public Radio to define the “tipping point” in her support for Wheeler, Ernst said: “I would say if they’re not following the law, that’s the tipping point.”
Ernst has in recent weeks announced she would not support the nomination of the EPA’s deputy director, holding up Doug Benevento’s appointment in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Today, Senate Majority PAC weighed in on the issue with a spate of new digital ads focused on Ernst’s “record of selling out Iowa farmers and the ethanol industry while in Washington.”
The “sizable” five-figure ad buy will run on Facebook “and target persuadable Iowa voters across the state, especially those in rural areas,” according to SMP.
“Ernst could demand Wheeler’s resignation today,” said SMP spokesperson Rachel Irwin, “instead, she is putting party loyalty ahead of her constituents while cashing in.”
Starting Line recently reported on campaign donations Ernst has received from the political action committee and CEO of Tesoro Corp., one of the nation’s largest oil refining companies. Despite its billions in profits, the company received EPA exemptions for three of its refineries. Tesoro’s CEO is a known opponent of the RFS.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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