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Shutdown funds lapse stokes fears about biofuel mandates


WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the federal government shutdown still at full squabble, some parties are concerned that promises of biofuel mandates may not proceed as scheduled.

The Trump administration had hoped to have a rule to bring E15 ethanol to market published by February, but the shutdown – now the longest in U.S. history – could be delaying the U.S. EPA’s work.

In the run-up to the November midterm elections, President Donald Trump promised to lift the ban on E15 during the summer months in a win for ethanol supporters. However, with the EPA operating at only partial strength and Trump stating the shutdown might last “months,” there are worries the administration could fail to deliver on its pledge.

Under current rules, the sale of E15 is blocked from June 1-Sept. 15 in parts of the country, such as California where smog has proven to be an issue during hot weather.

“From the outset, EPA gave itself very little wiggle room to complete the year-round E15 rulemaking before summer, so the shutdown is making a tight timeline even tighter,” said Renewable Fuels Assoc. President and CEO Geoff Cooper, when asked for comment.

“However, we remain confident that EPA can and will deliver on President Trump’s commitment to resolve the barrier to year-round E15 sales before June 1.”

The EPA is confident everything will proceed as planned. “EPA will complete the RVP/RIN (Reid Vapor Pressure/Renewable Identification Numbers) reform rule before this summer’s driving season,” said Michael Abboud, EPA spokesman. “This is a priority for both President Trump and Acting Administrator (Andrew) Wheeler. The ongoing partial shutdown will not impede EPA’s ability to keep to our deadline.”

The move to E15 came at a critical time for farmers, when income is expected to be below 50 percent of 2013 levels and median farm income is projected at negative $1,316.

The move to year-round E15 is also expected to save customers money at the pump. When moved to E10 more than a decade ago, the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics calculated that increase in ethanol blend saved U.S. consumers $7 billion between 2008-16.

“It’s difficult; ethanol prices are very low right now, corn prices are very low right now,” said Anne Steckel, biofuel advisor for the National Farmers’ Union. “There is a lot of pressure on the farm economy. A move to E15 would help alleviate a lot of pain we are all feeling.”

Trump's decision to lift the ban of summer sales of E15 was applauded by Corn Belt farmers and lawmakers and criticized by the oil lobby as an illegal overreach by the EPA and then-administrator Scott Pruitt.

But some are not confident the leadership change at the agency is necessarily going to help matters. “EPA at present is not updating its Web portal, which provides the transparency on the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) program and last year’s unwarranted flood of small refinery exemptions promised by Acting Administrator Wheeler,” said Paul Winters, director of public affairs and federal communications for the National Biodiesel Board.

“The agency has said the lapse in funding won’t delay RFS rules and other actions, and we hope that continues to be the case.”

With income hitting record lows, the move could be imperative to producers. “The RVP rule and parity for E15 is a priority for corn growers, and we hope this effort remains on track,” said Liz Friedlander, director of policy communications for the National Corn Growers Assoc.

Steckel said farmers are worried, but she is optimistic everything will go as planned.

“We’re certainly concerned about the shutdown and what effect that could have on the E15 waiver, but he RVP waiver seems to be pretty straightforward and they seem to have been completed. They’ve been working on that a long time, so it’s really a matter of timing. We think that it should come out and be done in an expedited fashion.”