Trump's Bait-And-Switch On The Renewable Fuel Standard

In politics, it is not unusual for the administration of a president to take a more nuanced position on an issue than the one advanced by the candidate during the campaign. That comes with governing. However, the Trump administration has taken this concept to a whole new level. In some cases, the administration has adopted a position on an issue drastically different from the position Trump put forth while campaigning. Indeed, the president may continue to support his original position in speeches and on Twitter even as his administration makes moves to undermine it.

Consider the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a key component in the fight against climate change and a push for energy independence. The RFS was established in legislation passed by Congress in 2005 and expanded in 2007 that required oil companies to blend into all transportation fuel a minimum amount of renewable fuel like ethanol, which can be produced from feedstock such as corn. The bill compelled oil companies to blend increasingly larger amounts of renewable fuels with gasoline and diesel over time until the amount reached 36 billion gallons in 2022.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump advocated the protection of the RFS, which is one reason why he performed well in Iowa, where corn production is a vital part of the state’s economy. On January 19, 2016, speaking before the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) two weeks before the hotly contested Iowa caucus, Trump endorsed the RFS, declaring, “As president, I will encourage Congress to be cautious in attempting to... change any part of the RFS.” He added: “Energy independence is a requirement if America is to become great again.” Trump barely lost the Iowa caucus but carried the state in the general election.

As president, Trump continued to voice his support for the RFS and the ethanol industry. He made sure Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reassured Iowa’s two Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, during his confirmation hearings that he would support a robust RFS. This was necessary because Pruitt was strongly considered to be close to the petroleum industry, which has consistently opposed the RFS. Keep in mind that, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt had established himself as a climate change denier, disbanded the state’s Environmental Protection Unit housed in the AG’s Office, and sued the EPA 13 times, always in an attempt to reduce requirements on a range of issues. In the end Ernst believed Pruitt “alleviate[d] my concerns.” So did enough senators to confirm him.

Then in May Trump dispatched Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to Story County, Iowa. There, Perdue told an approving audience that “renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay and we’re going to work for new technologies to make it more efficient.” In June, Trump himself traveled to Iowa and in a speech at Kirkwood Community College boasted that “we will protect the corn-based ethanol and biofuels that power our country” before reminding his audience, “And you remember, during the campaign, I made that promise.”

But has the Trump administration kept its RFS pledge? “Now it is time for action,” Monte Shaw, IRFA executive director, said following Trump’s Iowa appearance. “President Trump’s EPA needs to release the proposed Renewable Fuel Standard volumes for 2018. That proposal needs to maintain ethanol levels at the statutory 15 billion gallons and should include a major boost in the biodiesel number to reflect reality in the marketplace.”

In fact, the release of that proposed requirement was already underway. In May, the EPA submitted a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in The White House requiring 384 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel for 2018. (EPA staff believed the number was “reasonably accurate” based on predictions from previous years.) On June 2, the EPA submitted a draft rule proposing 384 million gallons, a draft rule submitted two additional times on June 13 and 14 without objection from the OMB. But when yet another draft rule was submitted on June 23 the proposed gallons had dropped to 238 million. The reason? “[N]ew data warrants a change to the methodology,” the note read.

On July 5, the EPA previewed on its website the required RFS volumes for 2018, proposing 238 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel. On July 21, the agency published its official notice, proposing 238 million gallons. Then, on August 20, both the May memo, requiring 384 million gallons, and the June update, requiring 238 million gallons, appeared on the EPA docket. (Apparently posted by mistake, the May memo was taken down the next day.) It was now clear that within the EPA steps were taken to drastically reduce the RFS requirements after the proposed 2018 guidelines were submitted to the OMB. Some believe the force behind that change was EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“By slashing targets for advanced fuel,” conservative firebrand Rick Santorum recently wrote, “the EPA is essentially telling rural America that growth is not an option. That’s not what this administration stands for. President Trump knows that homegrown fuels represent a vital opportunity to create jobs in the heartland while keeping our air clean and promoting U.S. energy dominance.” If it’s true President Trump knows this, he needs to convey that belief to his EPA administrator.