Ethanol plant beyond field of green photosbyjim/ThinkstockPhotos

Trump's third biofuel meeting in four days ends without agreement

Trump asked for another meeting on the issue next week.

by Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Mario Parker

President Donald Trump found out how difficult it is to bridge the competing interests of ethanol producers and oil refiners as a third White House biofuel meeting in four days ended with no agreement on how to change U.S. policies.

Trump has been trying to address complaints from refiners who say the U.S. biofuel mandate -- the Renewable Fuel Standard -- is too costly, without alienating another key constituency: corn farmers and ethanol producers who helped elect him president.

Each side was represented in a one-hour discussion on Thursday, but they left with no breakthrough -- only a commitment to keep talking and the parameters of a potential solution, said three people familiar with the talks who asked not to be named to describe the meeting, which was closed to the press.

Participants discussed a possible policy change that would effectively cap the price of the compliance credits refiners use to prove they have fulfilled annual biofuel quotas, in exchange for an environmental waiver to allow year-round sales of E15 gasoline, containing 15 percent ethanol.

Waiver Credits

Compliance credits tracking 2018 ethanol targets plunged 13% to 55 cents each after the meeting, according to broker data compiled by Bloomberg.

Trump floated the idea of the Environmental Protection Agency selling ethanol waiver credits for two years at 10 cents in exchange for the E15 policy change that could expand the domestic market for ethanol.

Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, the top U.S. corn growing and ethanol-producing state, tweeted after the meeting about what he called an “emerging solution.”

A “true win-win” is selling E15 year-round, a change that would lower refiners’ compliance costs while also helping farmers squeezed by low corn prices, Grassley said on Twitter. 

Participants in Thursday’s gathering included the same Republican senators who met with Trump on the issue Tuesday: Ted Cruz of Texas,  Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Economic Impacts Debated

But the focus was on 11 industry representatives who came to spell out the economic consequences of potential biofuel policy changes, including the chief executives of biofuel producers Poet, Green Plains Inc. and Renewable Energy Group Inc. and oil refiners Valero Energy Corp., PBF Energy Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc.’s Monroe Energy LLC.

Bill Horan, a farmer with Western Iowa Energy LLC, and United Steelworkers President Ryan O’Callaghan also participated. 

Tom Nimbley, chief executive of New Jersey-based refiner PBF Energy Inc., termed the conversation “productive.” 

“We will continue to work with the president, senators and all stakeholders that can provide important reforms that are a win for farmers and a win for union refinery workers,” Nimbley said in an emailed statement.

But Jeff Broin, chief executive of ethanol producer Poet LLC, who also participated in Thursday’s gathering, said “nothing new was discussed.”

Jobs Imperiled?

“Removing accountability from oil companies would deprive millions of Americans the freedom to choose less expensive, homegrown biofuels and imperil countless jobs and family farms across America’s heartland,” Broin said in an emailed statement. “This issue will continue to play out. We will protect interests of this industry, farmers and consumers.”

Refiners’ concerns generally center around the compliance credits, known as renewable identification numbers, or RINs, that they use to prove they have satisfied annual biofuel quotas.

Administration officials have been considering a menu of possible changes the EPA could make without Congressional action to lower the cost of those RINs and expand the market for ethanol.

The conflict over the 13-year-old RFS that mandates biofuel use at a certain level began long before Trump moved into the White House, and it’s among the most intractable energy policy disputes in Washington. Federal law enshrines biofuel targets through 2022, but after that the EPA has more latitude to set annual quotas and shift its approach.

“Nothing will change until there is a sense of risk about what might happen after 2022,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist. “For most on the Democratic side, this eventually becomes an electric vehicle mandate if they’re in charge. For most on the Republican side, the program should zero out in 2022. 

Trump asked for another meeting on the issue next week and told participants he wanted to see studies on the economic effects of potential policy changes.

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at [email protected]; Mario Parker in Chicago at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at [email protected]

Elizabeth Wasserman, Ros Krasny

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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