Requests to Waive US Renewable Fuels Standard Denied by EPA

The U.S  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced it has denied requests from the Governors of Arkansas and North Carolina to waive Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) volume requirements, based on the effects of the drought on feedstocks used to produce renewable fuel in 2012-2013. The petitions, filed in August, triggered a review process to determine if the implementation of the RFS requirements would severely harm the economy of those states.

After considering the nearly 30,000 comments received during the public comment period and empirical evidence, such as the prices of RINs and market commodities, the agency’s economic analyses did not produce sufficient evidence of severe economic harm that would warrant the granting of the waiver request. The EPA analyzed 500 scenarios and found no impact from the RFS program on corn, food or fuel prices in 89% of those scenarios. In the 11% of scenarios where RFS impacts were shown, the impact was less than a 1% change in corn prices. EPA acknowledged that “this year’s drought has created significant hardships in many sectors of the economy, particularly for livestock producers. However, the agency’s extensive analysis makes clear that Congressional requirements for a waiver have not been met and that waiving the RFS would have little, if any, impact on ethanol demand or energy prices over the time period analyzed.”

In its 83-page Notice of Decision (PDF file), EPA interpreted the waiver provision in a manner consistent with its prior response to the first RFS waiver request from Texas in 2008, which was also denied. In both cases, Section 211(o)(7)(A) of the Clean Air Act was interpreted as providing narrow authority. In order to grant a waiver, EPA would have had to determine with a high degree of confidence that implementation of the mandate would not only contribute to economic harm, but would itself severely harm the economy of the State or region requesting the waiver.

While the issue is politically charged, EPA’s decision making process in waiver requests focuses on the legal standard established by the Clean Air Act. The waiver is essentially a pressure relief valve for the program but is only available when the very high standard of severe harm is met. EPA utilized an updated version of an Iowa State University model to analyze 500 scenarios. In 89% of the scenarios, the model indicated that the implementation of the RFS program would have no impact on ethanol production and corn prices. This is consistent with the market reality that ethanol blending is driven primarily by factors other than the RFS, in particular blending economics and the value of ethanol as an oxygenate. A significant additional factor considered in the EPA analysis is the availability of rollover RINs from prior years that can be utilized by obligated parties. To the extent that rollover RINs are used this year, this factor would change significantly should similar drought conditions return next year. 

While this waiver request has now been resolved, interested parties continue to follow EPA rulemaking activities relating to the RFS closely. It is anticipated that the agency will address the issue of RIN fraud in a pending rulemaking. Thanks to my colleague Sara Bergan for her assistance in reporting the EPA's RFS waiver decision today.

EPA Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0632

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