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Why the EPA Reversed Its Position on Renewable Fuels | Commentary

In late 2013, the oil industry scored a major victory over ethanol producers when the Obama administration proposed decreasing the level of biofuel that must be blended into gasoline. A 2007 law supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations requires biofuels, such as ethanol, be blended into fuel supplies. Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates the “renewable fuel standard” — the amount of biofuel that must be blended into fuel — and every year since the law was enacted, that amount has increased, never decreased.  

The EPA’s proposed cuts were also surprising in light of the administration’s general policy of moving Americans away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources.  

A team of reporters from Reuters investigated and found the Washington, D.C.-based  investment firm the Carlyle Group, which owns two refineries in the Philadelphia area, and Delta Air Lines, which also owns a refinery, appear to have played a significant role in persuading the administration to reverse course.  

At these companies’ behest, Reps. Robert A. Brady, D-Pa., and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., lobbied administration officials — including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, White House economic adviser Ronald Minsk and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling — to push the EPA to lower the biofuels mandate, arguing the cost of ethanol is too high.

While the administration claims it listened to all sides of the debate and the EPA says the decision is related to production and infrastructure issues, Brady was indiscreet enough to brag, “I talked to the vice president and I told him what the issue was, and he said, ‘We’ve got to try to fix that,’ and we fixed it.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the Obama EPA has bowed to political pressure. Pro Publica reported that in 2010, when the Uranium Energy Corp. sought a permit from the EPA to pollute underground wells that supplied drinking water, agency scientists opposed the plan over concerns that radioactive material might contaminate the water. The plan seemed dead until late 2011, when the company hired a well-connected Washington lobbyist and prolific fundraiser who contacted the EPA’s second in command to press its case. The EPA reversed its position and approved the permit, allowing Uranium Energy to pollute the aquifer, albeit in a smaller area than originally proposed. A retired EPA employee involved in the matter expressed dissatisfaction with the agency’s flip.

Politicization of the EPA is hardly confined to the current administration. Back in 2008, the head of President George W. Bush’s EPA stripped Region 5 Administrator Mary Gade of her powers and told her to quit or be fired, apparently in retaliation for refusing to cooperate with a political effort to block the Region from taking aggressive action to clean up dioxin contamination near a Dow Chemical facility in Michigan.

My organization, which focuses on government ethics, has no position regarding the RFS but is concerned about whether environmental standards that impact all of us are determined by realpolitik rather than good public policy. That’s why we called for an investigation by the EPA’s inspector general and submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for records of communications between the EPA and Congress, White House officials, Carlyle and Delta about this matter.

The EPA will soon send the new RFS targets to the Office of Management and Budget for finalization, meaning the rule will be released in the near future. The agency should respond to our FOIA request quickly so we can all be assured that whatever the new standard, the call was made in the public’s best interests, not just in Carlyle’s and Delta’s.

Melanie Sloan is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

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