Court suspends RFS obligations for 2 small refineries

By Erin Voegele | January 30, 2023

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Jan. 27 suspended Renewable Fuel Standard compliance obligations for two refineries that were denied small refinery exemptions (SREs) by the U.S. EPA last year.

The San Antonio Refinery LLC (TSAR) and Calumet Shreveport Refining LLC are among the small refineries that have challenged the EPA’s 2021 decision to change its methodology for determining economic hardship. The change in methodology was prompted by the EPA’s review of the pending SRE petitions and supporting information; its legal, technical and policy analysis of the Clean Air Act provisions related to small refineries; and its application of the holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Renewable Fuels Association et al. v. EPA.  

In challenging the EPA’s new SRE policy, TSAR and Calumet claim that the EPA’s new statutory interpretation violates the CCA; that the agency’s new interpretation of “disproportionate economic hardship” led to an unlawful retroactive application of a new standard; and that EPA’s denial of the hardship exemption petitions was arbitrary and capricious. “We are persuaded that TSAR and Calumet are likely to prevail on at least the second argument, so we focus our analysis there,” said the court in a Jan. 27 filing.

“That retroactive application of EPA’s ‘new interpretation’—which quite possibly will read the exemption framework promulgated by Congress out of the statute entirely, such that no small refinery will ever qualify for one—is thus likely contrary to law,” the court said in the filing. “It follows that TSAR and Calumet, at least as to their hardship petitions submitted for years prior to EPA’s late-2021 change of course, have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.”

The court specifies that it is not suggesting that TSAR and Calumet are entitled to continuing hardship waivers. However, the court says “they are entitled to know ground rules by which EPA will grant or deny their hardship petitions, in advance of making their applications.” The EPA changed its SRE rules retroactively “and TSAR and Calumet have made a strong showing that they will succeed on the merits of their appeals as a result.” As a result, the court has stayed TSAR and Calumet’s RFS obligations until the court rules on the appeal.

Growth Energy has expressed disappointment in the court’s action. “We’re disappointed the court issued an order delaying compliance by two facilities, but we’re confident that the RFS will be fully enforced once the merits are considered,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “The EPA’s position is backed by reams of real-world data and analysis by public- and private-sector experts. The supposed ‘cost’ to these refiners is an accounting fiction. Moreover, Congress never intended for these temporary exemptions to become a permanent handout. We agree with EPA’s view that it’s past time to end abuse of SREs, which destroy demand for low-carbon fuel and create needless uncertainty for all stakeholders, large and small.”