Key Republicans Raise Doubts Over EPA Nominee

Sen. Joni Ernst and others are upset over the agency’s proposed biofuel standards, but it’s unclear whether that will be enough to derail Bill Wehrum’s nomination.

Sen. Joni Ernst
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Oct. 17, 2017, 2:24 p.m.

A nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s high-profile air office may be in jeopardy due to Republican concerns over the agency’s stewardship of biofuel policy.

Sen. Joni Ernst, who hails from corn powerhouse Iowa, indicated the nomination of Bill Wehrum may hit resistance at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Wednesday.

“He’s got to answer of lot of his questions a lot clearer than he has. I’m not comfortable with him right now,” Ernst said of Wehrum.

A band of otherwise unlikely bipartisan allies continue to blast the EPA over its attempts to decrease biofuel blending requirements, alleging that the agency is undercutting the program in violation of the law. Ernst, alongside Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, pressed the nominee during an October EPW hearing to commit to higher annual quotas for biofuel blending requirements.

“I know a bit about the [renewable fuel standard]. I don’t know everything about the RFS,” Wehrum, a former EPA political appointee and lawyer who has contested the biofuel industry, said then. “There is discretion built into the law for the agency and others to use in making sure the law can be implemented according to the law but also be effective in a practical manner.”

Biofuel producers are signaling mixed positions on the nomination.

Democrats are unanimously opposed, based in part on Wehrum’s position that the EPA should not regulate climate change under the Clean Air Act. One Republican “no” vote, therefore, would torpedo the nomination in committee.

The Ernst comments come just hours ahead of a meeting with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is heading to Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss biofuel policy with Ernst, Fischer, and other proponents, including GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who’s hosting the meeting.

The renewable fuel standard, which was signed into law in 2005 and amended two years later, aims to grow biofuel industries by requiring petroleum importers and refiners to blend different types of biofuel into gasoline. Supporters championed the policy as a way to decrease emissions of pollutants and cut U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Prices at the pump skyrocketed during that period, reaching nearly $150 a barrel in 2008.

The 2018 agency proposal, which was released in July, would force petroleum importers and refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol but only 4.24 billion gallons of advanced biofuel, which is made from non-edible parts of corn and switchgrass, among other vegetation.

Advanced biofuel generally emits fewer air pollutants than traditional ethanol, and environmentalists often urge the EPA to prioritize development in that portion of the industry. The proposal would decrease the cellulosic-biofuel-blending requirement below last year’s quota, from 311 to 238 million gallons.

Blending mandates for biomass-based diesel would remain at 2.1 billion gallons, the current quota. Both cellulosic and biomass diesel are advanced biofuels.

But an EPA notice in recent weeks sparked even more concern among biofuel supporters. The agency asked stakeholders whether a 2018 final rule, which is scheduled for release before the end of the year, should reduce the biodiesel quota from the proposal’s 2.1 billion gallons.

“EPA’s proposal earlier this summer was inadequate, underestimating the power of domestic biodiesel production and ignoring the intent of the law,” Doug Whitehead, chief operating officer at the National Biodiesel Board, said at the time. “This request for comment is even more disappointing.”

Since that announcement, Grassley has publicly lambasted the agency. “This proposal would drastically undermine biodiesel production and, most importantly, it’s contrary to then-candidate Trump and President Trump,” Grassley said on Oct. 10 at an event in Iowa. “I believe a platform is something to stand on, not just run on.”

Trump stumped hard for biofuels on the campaign trail and overwhelmingly won corn states like Iowa and Nebraska.

Other Republican biofuel backers on the EPW Committee, however, appear to be lining up behind Wehrum, who squeaked through a committee vote in 2006 for the same position only to withdraw the next year after Democrats took control of the Senate.

“There were some questions at the hearing,” Fischer said. “But right now, I would say I’m supportive.” Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota also indicated he would support the nominee. Wehrum once represented the oil and grocery industries in litigation against the use of E15, which is fuel containing 15 percent ethanol.

In an Oct. 16 letter, 33 senators pushed Pruitt to bump up blending requirements. Governors from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota sent a similar letter to Trump on the same day.

For some biofuel proponents in the private sector, the Wehrum nomination is the most obvious opportunity to showcase discontent and resolve. “This is a natural place to take this issue up because they’re running out of bullets,” said Mike Carr, executive director of New Energy America, which supports biofuels as part of a push to increase energy jobs in rural areas.

“The hard thing now is they don’t know if they’re going to get the responses they want even if they block the nomination,” Carr added. “Now they’re caught between risking the public perception of disloyalty to Trump and a move that comes with an uncertain outcome.”

Meanwhile, an advanced-biofuel producer based in Boston said the lawmakers should sign off on the nomination in order to get in place the necessary personnel to make sound policy.

“I don’t think holding up nominations is the way to go, and I don’t think we need to press for the world’s greatest biofuel proponent in that role. That’s not my concern,” said Gene Gebolys, founder of World Energy. “The administrator needs help. With more personnel, we’re confident he’ll get it right. I think it’s time to get on with it.”

Pruitt is so far the only Senate-confirmed EPA nominee under Trump.

Even if the panel gives the go-ahead on Wehrum, however, the full Senate will need to take up the nomination. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican, indicated that Pruitt needs to change course at the Tuesday meeting.

“He better have something good to say,” Thune said.

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