WASHINGTON – The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is looking to make peace on biofuels standards with a group of senators from corn-growing states who could upend President Donald Trump's nominees for key regulatory posts.
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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pledged in a letter to Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and a half dozen other Republican lawmakers to take specific actions benefiting the biofuels industry.
Last summer, Pruitt proposed biofuels targets for 2017 and 2018 set slightly below current levels. This followed a push by oil companies to ease mandates included in the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires ethanol from corn and soybeans to be blended into gasoline and diesel. Though Pruitt's letter said he was still assessing the issue, EPA's current analysis is that those standards should be set "equal to or higher" than the amounts previously proposed.
Trump during the presidential campaign had advocated protecting the renewable fuel standard, which helped his election performance in Iowa, where corn production is vital.
The move came a day after the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works delayed consideration of four Trump EPA nominees. Ernst, a member of the committee, had said she had concerns about the nomination of Bill Wehrum to lead the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, which oversees the Renewable Fuel Standard.
After receiving Pruitt's letter, Ernst said she is now prepared to vote in favor of Wehrum's confirmation.
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"I had to have those assurances in writing from the administrator before I was willing to move Bill Wehrum forward," Ernst said Friday in a call with reporters from her home state. "I just didn't want verbal assurances, I wanted it in writing."
Iowa's other senator, Chuck Grassley, also threatened earlier this week to scuttle Trump's nominees unless Pruitt backed off. Iowa is the nation's leading corn producer and one of the top soybean growers. With 43 ethanol refineries and 12 biodiesel plants, it also leads the nation in biofuels production.
Pruitt's concessions on biofuels reaffirmed the political muscle wielded by the biofuels industry's defenders in Congress. It also upset the fossil fuels industry, which has counted on Pruitt as a reliable ally since his days fighting Obama-era carbon emissions restrictions as Oklahoma's elected attorney general.
Chet Thompson, the president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, said it was "astonishing" to see Pruitt appear to knuckle under. He said the current biofuels mandates are unworkable and drive up fuel costs.
"It is astonishing that Administrator Pruitt succumbed to the pressures of a handful of Midwestern senators and agreed — in writing no less — to back off pending proposals that would lower fuel costs for U.S. consumers and end mandates for foreign biodiesel," Thompson said. "The proposal that EPA turned its back on would have helped."
Pitt reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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