Commentary: White House Renewable Fuels Policy Raises Questions (via Roll Call)

Last May, Reuters ran two articles about the White House’s pending decision on the renewable-fuel standard, which federally mandates how much biofuel must be blended into the transportation fuel supply in the United States.

The first Reuters article reported that an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to scale back the RFS — by cutting the amount of biofuels in our nation’s fuel supply in 2014 — was the result of a secret deal cut between the Carlyle Group, Delta Airlines, two congressmen, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other high-level administration officials. Both Carlyle and Delta own oil refineries and stand to gain financially from the EPA’s proposed cuts to the RFS in 2014.

The second Reuters article highlighted a waiver inserted into the RFS — presumably also at the behest of Carlyle and Delta — that would allow the oil companies to refuse to sell biofuels.

What is so alarming about this situation is that absent this reporting, why the EPA proposed to dismantle the RFS would have been a mystery to everyone but a handful of politically connected lobbyists, a couple of congressman and senior administration officials. And, if these articles accurately reflect what is happening inside the President Barack Obama administration, it means the White House is seemingly altering our nation’s energy policy to benefit big oil, but is trying to do so in secret.

Based on the Reuters pieces and the fact that the Obama administration supported a robust implementation of the RFS until this year, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington urged the EPA’s inspector general to investigate how the agency arrived at the unprecedented decision to water down the RFS. Additionally, CREW submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA to obtain records that would shed light on how and why the administration determined it was good policy to back away from the RFS.

Several months have elapsed, but the EPA has produced only a few unhelpful documents. As a result, CREW has sued the agency in federal court to force the release of records. Eventually, we expect to learn who was influencing the administration’s policies regarding the RFS, to what extent, and why.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre aspects of this situation is that although the year is drawing to a close, the 2014 standards still have not been released; the 2015 standards are due shortly. This suggests a political motive: Perhaps the White House did not want to release the 2014 RFS before the midterm elections to avoid being seen as siding with the oil industry against the biofuels industry.

Of course, the White House and the EPA should talk to representatives of the oil and biofuels sectors in determining the RFS, but decisions that dramatically impact our energy policy should be transparent. As Reuters revealed, Carlyle and Delta and their congressional supporters weighed in with top White House staff, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and economic advisers Ronald Minsk and Gene Sperling to weaken the RFS. Rep. Robert A. Brady contacted Biden to press the issue, he promised to look into it and lo and behold, problem solved. Seems like more of a back-room deal than open process.

Rather than engaging in months of legal wrangling to delay the inevitable release of the records CREW has sought, the EPA should immediately provide all relevant documents so Americans can decide for themselves whether the RFS changes have been politics or policy.

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

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