Wheeler discusses RFS waivers, SREs during Senate hearing

By Erin Voegele | May 20, 2020

The Renewable Fuel Standard, small refinery exemptions (SREs), and EPA rulemakings to classify biomass as carbon neutral were among the topics discussed during a May 20 hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works focused on oversight of the U.S. EPA.

During the event, Wheeler answered questions related to RFS waivers and SREs. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., expressed disappointment that the EPA didn’t challenge the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals January ruling that, if applied nationally, would significantly reduce the number of small refineries that are eligible to receive SREs. He asked Wheeler what steps the EPA is taking to help small refineries get hardship waivers.

“I have talked personally with a number of small refiners all over the country,” Wheeler said, noting the agency is “working with them to see what we can do to help them during this time.” Wheeler also noted that many refineries are suffering due to COVID-19-related drops in fuel demand. “We have extraordinary circumstances this year and we are looking at what relief we can provide everyone—the ethanol industry is hurting as well,” he said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, referenced recent requests submitted to the EPA that seek waivers of 2020 RFS blending requirements. Despite what those waivers claim, she said, the RFS is not causing oil refiners economic harm—COVID-19 and oil wars are causing the problems. Ernst asked Wheeler if the EPA has determined how it will respond to those waivers and whether or not the agency will look at precedent set in prior years. Wheeler said the agency has not yet determined its response to the waiver requests, but stressed the agency will look to past precedent, Clean Air Act requirements, and court decisions when making that determination.

Ernst also asked Wheeler about commitments to remove E15 warning labels from fuel pumps and changes that would allow E15 be to be sold in fueling infrastructure that is currently approved for use with E10. Wheeler said the issue was more complex than he originally thought due to factors related to underground fuel storage tanks. He said EPA staff continues to work on the issue, but cautioned that staffing issues are causing delays. The same small group of staff that are working on those issues are also working on all the other RFS-related issues as well, he said, which has caused some delays. While the agency is behind on those E15 matters, he said agency will get to those issues as soon as possible.

Also during the hearing, several senators questioned Wheeler on rulemaking being developed by the agency that will classify certain kinds of biomass as carbon neutral. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., asked Wheeler what the timeline is for a final rule related to forest biomass. Wheeler said a proposed rule is currently going through the interagency review process. “We hope to publish the rule in June,” he said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., asked Wheeler if the EPA plans to develop a similar rule for crop biomass. “We are looking at that in a three phase process,” Wheeler said, noting that the first phase of that process focuses on wood biomass due to language included in in recent appropriations bills. Crop biomass, he said, will be addressed in either the second or third phase, with that work currently expected to be rolled out during the next year and a half.

A full video recording of the hearing can be viewed on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works website.