renewable fuel standard
If you’ve been keeping up with the ag news lately, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). As a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel.” Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops such as corn and soybeans. Lately, you may have heard discussion about a controversial new rule regarding the volumes of biofuels that are required to be mixed with oil. While all that talk has been going on, there has also been a lawsuit against the EPA for RFS exemptions given to certain oil refineries. Congress has been examining the exemptions as well. Having trouble keeping all of this RFS information straight? We’ll help you sort it out.
EPA proposes new RFS rule
As we explained in our last Ag Law Harvest post, available here, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the RFS program in 2020 and 2021. Agricultural and biofuels groups are not pleased with the proposed blending rules, arguing that the way EPA proposes to calculate biofuel volumes would result in much lower volumes than they were originally promised by President Trump. (The original promise was made in part to make up for waivers the Trump EPA had given to oil refineries.) Conversely, EPA and the Trump administration contend that the proposed rule does meet the previously agreed upon biofuel volumes. A hearing on the proposed rule was held on October 30, where many agriculture and biofuels groups expressed their concerns. The oil industry was also represented at the hearing. Members of the oil industry feel that the cost of mixing in biofuels is too high. It is unlikely any deal was struck at the hearing, but there is still an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule if you wish. Comments are due on November 29, 2019. You can click here for commenting instructions, as well as for a link to submit your comment online.
Ag and biofuels groups sue the EPA
In the midst of the argument over how the volumes of biodiesel under the RFS will be calculated, another related quarrel has emerged. At the center of this dispute are exemptions EPA has given to “small refineries” in the oil industry. The number of exemptions given has increased drastically under the Trump administration, which in turn has lessened the demand for biofuels made from crops like corn and soybeans. On October 23, 2019, agriculture and biofuel groups filed a petition against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In the petition, the groups ask the court to review a decision made in August 2019 which retroactively exempted over 31 small refineries from meeting their 2018 biofuels requirements. The petitioning groups include Renewable Fuels Association, American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, National Biodiesel Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Farmers Union.
How does the small refinery exemption work?
Typically, an oil refinery would have to mix a set volume of renewable fuels, like biofuels, into their gasoline or diesel fuel. The volumes are set annually. Small refineries, which are defined as refineries where “the average aggregate daily crude oil throughput does not exceed 75,000 barrels,” can petition the EPA for an exemption from meeting their renewable fuel obligations. Exemptions are typically given temporarily if the refinery can show they would suffer economic hardship if they were made to blend their fuel with biofuel. A refinery seeking an exemption has to include a number of records showing their economic hardship in their petition, such as tax filings and financial statements. EPA’s website explaining the small refinery exemption is available here.
Why are ag and biofuel groups asking for judicial review?
Why are the groups we mentioned above upset about this particular set of small refinery exemptions? Well, first of all, the groups point to the brevity of the EPA’s decision. (The decision document can be found in the link to the petition, listed above.) The EPA’s decision document uses only two pages to explain their decision on 36 small refinery petitions. Because the decision was so short, the groups feel that EPA did not include the analysis of economic hardship for each refinery that they believe is required by the Clean Air Act and RFS regulations. Essentially, the groups argue that the EPA has not provided enough evidence or explanation for awarding the exemptions. You can read the groups’ press release explaining their reasoning here.
Underlying all of this is the fact that more small refinery exemptions means lower demand for biofuels. In fact, the ag and biofuel groups claim that due to the 31 exemptions made in August alone, 1.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel were not used. In addition, the 31 exemptions are just a few of many awarded by Trump’s EPA. By all accounts, since Trump took office, there has been a sharp increase in exemptions granted. EPA has data on the number of exemptions available here. The first year the Trump administration made exemptions is 2016.
Congress gets in on the action
It seems as though the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change (part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) is also worried about EPA’s exemptions, or waivers, for small oil refineries. On October 29, 2019, the Subcommittee held an oversight hearing entitled “Protecting the RFS: The Trump Administration’s Abuse of Secret Waivers.” In fact, in their memo about the hearing, the Subcommittee cited some of the same issues in the lawsuit we discussed above; namely the increase in waivers and the consequent effect on biofuel demand. Testimony was heard from both ag/biofuels and oil representatives.
In the hearing, the Subcommittee also considered the proposed “Renewable Fuel Standard Integrity Act of 2019.” The text of the bill is available here. The bill would require small refineries to submit petitions for exemptions from RFS requirements annually by June 1. Additionally, it would require information in the waiver petitions to be available to the American public. For information and documents related to the hearing, as well as a video stream of the hearing, click here.
What happens next?
As you can see, we’re playing a waiting game on three separate fronts. For the RFS rule, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of comments are submitted, and whether or not the EPA takes those comments into account when it writes the final rule. As for the lawsuit, all eyes are on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court could determine that the law does indeed require EPA to include more information and analysis to explain their reasons for exemption. On the other hand, the court could find that EPA’s decision document is sufficient under the law. In Congress, we’ll have to wait and see whether the proposed bill gets out of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and onto the House floor. We will be keeping track of the RFS developments on all fronts and keep you updated on what happens!
Written by: Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
October is almost over, and while farmers have thankfully been busy with harvest, we’ve been busy harvesting the world of ag law. From meat labeling to RFS rules to backyard chickens and H-2A labor certification, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Federal judge upholds Missouri’s meat labeling law—for now. Missouri passed a law in 2018, which among other things, prohibited representing a product as “meat” if it is not derived from livestock or poultry. As you can imagine, with the recent popularity of plant-based meat products, this law is controversial, and eventually led to a lawsuit. However, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided not issue a preliminary injunction that would stop the Missouri Department of Agriculture from carrying out the labeling law. He reasoned that since companies like Tofurky, who brought the suit, label their products as plant-based or lab-grown, the law does not harm them. In other words, since Tofurky and other companies are not violating the law, it doesn’t make sense to stop enforcement on their account. Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the good Food Institute have appealed Judge Gaitan’s decision, asserting that Missouri’s law infringes upon their right to free speech. This means that the Missouri law can be enforced at the moment, but the decision is not final, as more litigation is yet to come.
Oregon goes for cage-free egg law. In August, Oregon passed a new law that would require egg-laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea fowl to be kept in a “cage-free housing system.” This law will apply to all commercial farms with more than 3,000 laying hens. A cage-free housing system must have both indoor and outdoor areas, allow the hens to roam unrestricted, and must have enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas. As of January 1, 2024, all eggs sold in the state of Oregon will have to follow these requirements for hens. The law does allow hens to be confined in certain situations, like for veterinary purposes or when they are part of a state or county fair exhibition.
City can ban backyard chickens, says court. The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District upheld the city of Columbiana’s ordinances, which ban keeping chickens in a residential district, finding that they were both applicable to the appellant and constitutional. In this case, the appellant was a landowner in Columbiana who lived in an area zoned residential and kept hens in a chicken coop on his property. The appellant was eventually informed that keeping his hens was in violation of the city code. A lawsuit resulted when the landowner would not remove his chickens, and the trial court found for the city. The landowner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that he did not violate the city ordinances as they were written, and that the city applied the ordinances in an arbitrary and unreasonable way because his chickens did not constitute a nuisance. Although keeping chickens is not explicitly outlawed in Columbiana, the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District found that reading the city’s zoning ordinances all together, the “prohibition on agricultural uses within residential districts can be inferred.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the city’s code did not ban chickens in the whole city, but instead limited them to agricultural districts, and that the prohibition in residential areas was meant to ensure public health. For these reasons, the court found that the ordinances were not arbitrarily and unreasonably applied to the appellant, and as a result, the ordinances are constitutional. To read the decision in its entirety, click here.
EPA proposes controversial Renewable Fuel Standard rule. On October 15, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program in 2020. The RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels. Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane. In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners. The administration promised a fix to this in early October, but many agricultural and biofuels groups feel that EPA’s October 15 proposed rule told a different story. Many of these groups are upset by the proposed blending rules, claiming that way the EPA proposes calculate the biofuel volumes would cause the volumes to fall far below what the groups were originally promised by the administration. This ultimately means the demand for biofuels would be less. On the other hand, the EPA claims that biofuels groups are misreading the rule, and that the calculation will in fact keep biofuel volumes at the level the administration originally promised. The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on October 30, followed by a comment period that ends November 29, 2019. Hopefully the hearing and comments will help to sort out the disagreement. More information is available here, and a preliminary version of the rule is available here.
New H-2A labor certification rule is in effect. The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized one of many proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural labor rules. A new rule addressing labor certification for H-2A became effective on October 21, 2019. The new rule aims to modernize the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers. An employer may advertise their H-2A job opportunities on a new version of the Department’s website, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov, now mobile-friendly, centralized and linked to third-party job-search websites. State Workforce Agencies will also promote awareness of H-2A jobs. Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.
And more rules: National Organic Program rule proposals. The USDA has also made two proposals regarding organic production rules. First is a proposed rule to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and handling. The rule would allow blood meal made with sodium citrate to be used as a soil amendment, prohibit the use of natamycin in organic crops, and allow tamarind seed gum to be used as a non-organic ingredient in organic handling if an organic form is not commercially available. That comment period closes on December 17, 2019. Also up for consideration is USDA’s request to extend the National Organic Program’s information collection reporting and recordkeeping requirements, which are due to expire on January 31, 2020. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service specifically invites comments by December 16, 2019 on: (1) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used; (3) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology.
Great Lakes restoration gets a boost from EPA. On October 22, 2019, the EPA announced a new action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The plan will be carried out by federal agencies and their partners through fiscal year 2024. Past GLRI action plans have removed environmental impairments on the lakes and prevented one million pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the lakes. The plans are carried out by awarding federal grant money to state and local groups throughout the Great Lakes, who use the money to carry out lake and habitat restoration projects. Overall, the new plan’s goals are to remove toxic substances from the lakes, improve and delist Areas of Concern in the lakes, control invasive species and prevent new invasive species from entering the lakes, reduce nutrients running off from agriculture and stormwater, protect and restore habitats, and to provide education about the Great Lakes ecosystem. You can read EPA’s news release on the new plan here, and see the actual plan here. We plan to take a closer look at the plan and determine what it means for Ohio agriculture, so watch for future updates!