Senate hearing addresses wood stoves, RFS and biomass neutrality

By Erin Voegele | May 20, 2020

The U.S. EPA’s proposed rule to extend the sales deadline for Step 1 wood heaters, rulemaking to classify biomass as carbon neutral and issues associated with the Renewable Fuel Standard and small refinery exemptions (SREs) were among the topics discussed during a May 20 Senate hearing.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing focused on oversight of the U.S. EPA on the morning on May 20. U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was the only witness.

During the event, several senators questioned Wheeler on rulemaking being developed by the agency that will classify certain kinds of biomass as carbon neutral. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., asked Wheeler what the timeline is for a final rule related to forest biomass. Wheeler said a proposed rule is currently going through the interagency review process. “We hope to publish the rule in June,” he said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., asked Wheeler if the EPA plans to develop a similar rule for crop biomass. “We are looking at that in a three phase process,” Wheeler said, noting that the first phase of that process focuses on wood biomass due to language included in in recent appropriations bills. Crop biomass, he said, will be addressed in either the second or third phase, with that work currently expected to be rolled out during the next year and a half.

Wheeler also field questions related to the agency’s proposed rule issued on May 15 that aims to delay the deadline for Step 1 wood heater sales to Nov. 30. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., said she would have preferred the sell-through period be extended for a full year, through May 15, 2021, and asked Wheeler about criticism he’s received from those that oppose the recent proposed rule. Wheeler said it is important that people understand that the impacted stoves meet standards put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. “We’re not talking about standards that are 20 or 30 years old,” he said. Although the EPA originally decided against allowing a sell-through period in a rulemaking finalized earlier this year, the agency changed its mind due to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Wheeler explained that the vast majority biomass wood heater manufacturers are small businesses. Most retailers sell off their stove inventory in the spring via sales and rebates. With retailers closed due to COVID-19, that couldn’t happen. Under their contracts, manufacturers have to buy back unsold inventory from retailers. “That would have very easily bankrupt a number of small manufactures,” Wheeler explained. The proposed sell-through period would allow retailers to sell those stoves at the beginning of the upcoming heating season.

Also during the hearing, Wheeler answered questions related to RFS waivers and SREs. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., expressed disappointment that the EPA didn’t challenge the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals January ruling that, if applied nationally, would significantly reduce the number of small refineries that are eligible to receive SREs. He asked Wheeler what steps the EPA is taking to help small refineries get hardship waivers.

“I have talked personally with a number of small refiners all over the country,” Wheeler said, noting the agency is “working with them to see what we can do to help them during this time.” Wheeler also noted that many refineries are suffering due to COVID-19-related drops in fuel demand. “We have extraordinary circumstances this year and we are looking at what relief we can provide everyone—the ethanol industry is hurting as well,” he said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, referenced recent requests submitted to the EPA that seek waivers of 2020 RFS blending requirements. Despite what those waivers claim, she said, the RFS is not causing oil refiners economic harm—COVID-19 and oil wars are causing the problems. Ernst asked Wheeler if the EPA has determined how it will respond to those waivers and whether or not the agency will look at precedent set in prior years. Wheeler said the agency has not yet determined its response to the waiver requests, but stressed the agency will look to past precedent, Clean Air Act requirements, and court decisions when making that determination.

Ernst also asked Wheeler about commitments to remove E15 warning labels from fuel pumps and changes that would allow E15 be to be sold in fueling infrastructure that is currently approved for use with E10. Wheeler said the issue was more complex than he originally thought due to factors related to underground fuel storage tanks. He said EPA staff continues to work on the issue, but cautioned that staffing issues are causing delays. The same small group of staff that are working on those issues are also working on all the other RFS-related issues as well, he said. While the agency is behind on those E15 matters, he said agency will get to those issues as soon as possible.

A full video recording of the hearing can be viewed on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works website