It sounds more like a bad movie plot than a serious policy discussion, but oil companies have asked federal regulators to go back in time. Their goal is to retroactively steal markets from farmers and biofuel producers. In the real world, that would never happen, but in Washington, D.C., it seems like a time travel is under serious consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This latest anti-farm maneuver was revealed publicly for the first time in late May, when EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Under Secretary Mark Menezes testified before Senate lawmakers. Wheeler and Menezes admitted the administration was working “expeditiously” to process special “hardship” waivers for oil refineries – not for actual hardship, but as “gap-filings” that would help oil companies to skirt a decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Later, the agency admitted that it was considering a total of 52 such exemptions. Effectively, EPA waivers allow oil companies to ignore the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). But earlier this year, the Tenth Circuit Court halted the recent explosion of exemptions. Prior to the decision, the EPA had destroyed billions of gallons of biofuel demand, eliminating markets for corn and soybeans.
Under the law, the court ruled, temporary exemptions are not a permanent loophole. Once the EPA determines that a refinery no longer qualifies for an exemption, the agency cannot go back and “extend” a waiver years later.
Rather than enforce the ruling, the EPA is now considering retroactive waivers, designed to create a mock paper trail covering years as far back as 2011. As a result, new exemptions would be considered “extensions” rather than fresh handouts, so court-ordered limits would not apply. The exemptions aim to rewrite history, with the sole purpose of sidestepping the law and pushing more U.S. biofuels out of the marketplace.
It’s an absurd and transparent tactic designed to bend the law beyond recognition – all to help oil companies claim handouts covering years they reported millions or billions in profit. Biofuel and farm leaders are furious. Senator Joni Ernst has promised a “renewed effort within my office and Senator Grassley’s office now since hearing just the really unsatisfactory answers” from the EPA.
But time is running out. It took years for farm communities to win their court victory ending the EPA’s abuse. Over that time, billions of bushels of grain demand were lost, siphoning income away from farm families and biofuel producers alike.
Right now, that kind of delay could deal a killing blow to any hopes for a swift economic recovery in rural America. Nearly half of all U.S. biofuel production was forced offline when COVID-19 knocked out demand for transportation fuel. Thousands were furloughed or laid off. Farmers across the Midwest face bankruptcy, and 81 percent now say they are concerned about the future of U.S. ethanol, as markets for corn dry up.
Maybe that’s the goal. The EPA must know this latest strategy would never hold up in court, but oil companies don’t care. They just need to stall biofuel production for a year or two, blocking rural communities from rebuilding our industries in the wake of COVID-19. They could restore their monopoly over consumer options at the pump and halt America’s progress toward energy security and low-carbon fuel.
There’s no justification, legal or otherwise, for this latest attack. The EPA has every reason to reject these exemptions out of hand. Why they don’t is a question every Midwest lawmaker should be asking President Trump, because letting the EPA run roughshod over farm communities during an economic crisis seems like the kind of mistake this White House would want to avoid.
Seth Harder is general manager at Husker Ag in Plainview, Nebraska.
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