Has Trump finally seen the light on ethanol and the RFS?

Let’s jump in the Way Back Machine for a moment and revisit the early days of the 2016 GOP primary. With the Iowa caucuses fast approaching, one Republican after another disappointed opponents of the corrosive ethanol mandates which warp our energy markets and the Renewable Fuel Standard which gave such mandates the force of law. The only exception to that rule (at least for the most part) was Ted Cruz. At the opposite end of the spectrum was then-candidate Donald Trump. Rather than simply pledging to keep the mandates in place, Trump actually doubled down and called for increases in the amount of ethanol which would be forced into the nation’s gasoline supplies.

To say I was more than a little disappointed would be a significant understatement.

Now, after roughly eight months in office, we’ve seen some signs that just possibly the President is coming around. First, in July of this year, Scott Pruitt’s EPA took the promising step of announcing that they were looking into at least reducing the mandatory ethanol blending levels. That really got under Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s skin, and he sought assurances from the President that it wasn’t going to happen. Trump seemed somewhat noncommittal about it, but in September the disconnect on the subject flared up again. (Washington Post)

But then in September, the EPA truly infuriated the biofuel industry by floating the idea of bringing the proposed total even lower, and of revisiting other renewable fuel requirements for 2018 and 2019 finalized under the Obama administration.

The proposal is in line with what the oil and gas industry want (those energy producers think the RFS adds to the cost of refining petroleum and wants to see Congress rewrite the underlying 2005 law). “Until Congress acts to address the structural flaws with the RFS,” Frank J. Macchiarola of the American Petroleum Institute wrote in a letter to the EPA earlier this year, “lowering the volume requirements in 2018 is the most effective short-term way for EPA to address the problems created by the RFS.”

Yet in none of Grassley’s conversations — with Pruitt, with Perry or with Trump — did the administration make specific assurances about RFS levels going forward, the senator said. “It was just pretty generic,” Grassley said in the interview of meeting with Pruitt and Perry. And Grassley spoke with Trump for only about two minutes during that August phone call, he said. Grassley said he spoke with Trump again about ethanol in late September.

So what exactly is going on here? As recently as the end of August, Grassley was tweeting that Trump was still on the side of King Corn.

But if that’s the case, why is Scott Pruitt going back to the well with yet another poke at reducing the RFS levels rather than raising them as Grassley wants and as Obama did all through his administration? Normally I’d assume that there’s no way the head of the EPA would be making such a bold reversal in standing policy without consulting the White House first. But then again, we’re not exactly living in the most normal of times when it comes to how the various cabinet offices communicate with the Oval Office.

Three possible scenarios come to mind. The first is that Trump has just been soothing things over with Grassley in public while directing Scott Pruitt to move ahead with reductions. That goes against his campaign promises in Iowa, but they didn’t wind up giving him the primary win anyway. So, on the one hand, you could say he doesn’t feel like he owes them much to begin with. But from a more calculating standpoint, Ted Cruz was the only guy calling to gut the RFS and he actually did win the caucus. So how much would it burn Trump to take this path?

Two. Trump hasn’t actually been locked in on this or discussed it very much with the EPA director. In that event, Pruitt might just be freestyling the RFS question at this point and going with his own best judgment. That’s something that’s been known to backfire on Trump’s team in the past and could here unless Pruitt has made or thinks he’s ready to make a really compelling case to get the President onboard.

Three. The really Ancient Aliens version would be that Trump is holding firm on his commitment to the RFS and Pruitt has just gone rogue and is taking an approach along the lines of it being easier to get forgiveness than permission. That would make for some interesting if highly awkward cabinet meetings in the near future.

A request for comment from the EPA was not returned in time for publication. But this should be coming to a head sooner rather than later.