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Government

Grassley warns EPA chief over ethanol

Iowa senator says he's 'done playing around' on waivers

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa (Supplied photo)
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa (Supplied photo)
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Sen. Chuck Grassley said Tuesday that Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt must curtail the use of waivers exempting oil refiners from the nation’s renewable fuel law or he’ll join other lawmakers calling for Pruitt’s ouster.

The Iowa Republican’s demand ramps up pressure on the embattled EPA administrator, who already is under pressure from mostly Democratic lawmakers to quit over scandals that include lavish spending on travel and security.

Corn state senators like Grassley have been infuriated by the EPA’s decision to provide an unusually large number of waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard to refineries in recent months — freeing them from their obligation to blend biofuels like corn-based ethanol into gas.

“I’ve supported Pruitt but if he pushes changes to RFS that permanently cut ethanol by billions of gallons he will have broken Trump promise & should step down & let someone else do the job of implementing Trump agenda,” Grassley wrote on Twitter.

The EPA has authority to exempt small refineries from the fuel standard if they can prove complying would cause them economic hardship. But biofuels advocates say overusing the waivers kills demand for ethanol.

Grassley’s comments drew a quick response from backers of small refineries who argue that the EPA’s expansion of the waiver program is not a political choice, but stems from a 2017 federal court decision that said the agency had been too stingy with waivers.

“It is untenable that a sitting senator would give an administration official a Sophie’s choice: to violate the Clean Air Act or resign,” said LeAnn Johnson Koch, an attorney who works with small refineries.

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Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican who represents Wyoming, home to several small refineries, said Tuesday that the EPA ignored this obligation under the Obama administration and the courts rebuked it.

“EPA is now following the law and must continue to do so,” he said.

The EPA has said its criteria for approving hardship waivers for small refineries has not changed from past years.

Several Democratic lawmakers have called on Pruitt to step down in recent weeks — for other reasons — but President Donald Trump has thrown his support behind the agency chief, saying he is doing a “fantastic” job rolling back hurdles to industry.

Trump has been seeking to mediate discussions with lawmakers over the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard in recent months with an eye toward reducing the regulatory cost for refiners without undermining ethanol demand.

Trump told lawmakers in a closed-door meeting last week that he had decided to do so by expanding sales of high-ethanol gasoline called E15, counting ethanol exports toward annual volumes quotas and cutting back the use of waivers, according to people who attended the meeting.

But by Tuesday, Grassley told reporters he was “done playing around” with a lack of action on the waivers.

“Trump was elected with an agenda, Pruitt was not elected, and it’s Pruitt’s job to carry out the Trump agenda,” he said, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper.

The corn lobby supports expanding sales of E15 and reducing the waiver program, but opposes counting exports toward volume quotas.

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