One GOP Senator Held Up Trump Nominees To Extract Concessions For The Biofuel Industry

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor
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One Republican Senator single-handedly held up the nomination process for two Environmental Protection agency (EPA) nominees to extract written promises from President Donald Trump’s administration to benefit the biofuel industry.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt sent a letter Thursday to seven corn belt Senators who protested proposed changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the federal biofuel mandate that props up the ethanol industry.

“These assurances are a clear win for Iowans,” Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who posted Pruitt’s letter online, said in a statement.

“I am appreciative of Administrator Pruitt’s pledges to rural America, and I will continue to work collaboratively with the EPA going forward on this and other issues that help our farmers, manufacturers, landowners, businesses and communities,” Ernst said.

Ernst was one of a handful of senators opposing EPA’s proposed changes to the RFS, a move that biofuel makers saw as a threat to their industry. Ernst pushed back by refusing to support two of Trump’s nominees for key EPA positions.

How can one Senator do that? Ernst sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Republicans control the committee, but only by an 11 to 10 majority. One defection and it becomes very difficult to approve Trump’s nominees.

The hang ups on biofuels mean Michael Dourson, Trump’s pick to head EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Bill Wehrum, the pick to head EPA’s air and radiation office, are still on hold.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, also supported holding up Trump administration nominees over potential changes to the RFS, including a proposal to cut the mandate for biodiesel.

The RFS requires refiners to blend ever-increasing amounts of biofuels into motor fuels, creating a government-guaranteed market. Most of the mandate is met through blending corn-based ethanol into gasoline.

Refiners have built a coalition to oppose the RFS that includes the livestock industry, environmentalists and Republicans. Refiners bear the brunt of complying with the law, that can cost tens of millions of dollars every year.

The EPA proposed some RFS policy changes earlier that were supported by refiners who are feeling the pain of rising compliance costs.

The agency considered allowing exported biodiesel to count towards meeting RFS requirements, reducing the biodiesel quota 15 percent and other small changes opposed by the biofuel industry.

Now, the EPA is backing off proposals to fiddle with the biofuel mandate after the White House reportedly intervened. Senate and House members were joined by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, in lobbying the Trump administration to change course.

It seems to have worked — for now.

“Over the last few weeks, I had serious concerns about the EPA following the spirit and the letter of the RFS, which I made clear to my committee colleagues, the EPA, and the White House,” Ernst said.

“Tonight, I’m pleased to see these commitments from EPA Administrator Pruitt to uphold the RFS as intended by Congress,” Ernst added.

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