Biofuels Decision May Signal Big Oil’s Influence in White House

Roll Call

By: Anne Weismann

On June 1, the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release its new plan for implementing the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS is a federal mandate dictating how many gallons of biofuel should be blended into our transportation fuel supply. It was intended to encourage production of gasoline alternatives, thereby reducing American dependence on foreign oil, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The RFS has been held up for months as a result of political wrangling. When the number finally comes out, the American people might find out just how much influence the oil industry has on the Obama administration.

Last year, it was reported that the Carlyle Group and Delta Airlines, both powerful corporations that own oil refineries, used their significant political influence to lobby the White House for a proposal that would dramatically weaken the RFS for 2014 and beyond. Through their allies in Congress, they pressured Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to convince the administration to reduce the amount of biofuel to be mixed into fuel. The EPA never released the RFS, which was due last September, probably because of all the controversy. Still, a new RFS has to come out sometime.

The White House’s involvement was particularly suspect, given that President Barack Obama had been a strong supporter of the RFS, dating back to his time in the Senate. Throughout his first term in office, the RFS was increased each year as originally intended. It was only last year — without warning or explanation — that the EPA proposed a dramatically weakened RFS.

Another troubling change is a loophole that would allow the oil industry to avoid its obligations under the law for years to come. The EPA has proposed a new methodology that would permit oil companies simply to refuse to buy and distribute renewable fuels. Just last week, a letter was leaked to the public from the American Petroleum Institute — the trade association representing Big Oil in Washington — insisting the EPA include this provision in the upcoming proposal.

Carlyle, Delta and the rest of the oil industry oppose the RFS because every gallon of biofuel sold in the United States displaces oil, and oil companies maximize their profits by making sure they are the only option at the pump.

When I worked at the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, we filed a Freedom of Information Request with the EPA, seeking documents showing White House efforts to influence the EPA’s decision-making process. We did this to gauge just how much political pressure the West Wing was putting on the EPA to change the RFS.

The EPA fought the FOIA request at every turn, failing to turn over any correspondence between high-level staff at the White House and the agency. Finally, CREW filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking the records. This prompted the EPA, after even more delay, to turn over thousands of pages of documents, consisting mostly of heavily redacted communications between the EPA and industry groups. The documents do reveal, however, that high-level White House officials were closely involved with EPA in developing and finalizing the 2014 RFS, just as CREW suspected.

Because Americans’ lives are negatively impacted by decisions made behind the doors of corporate boardrooms, government offices, and shadowy nonprofit groups, I started a new organization, Campaign for Accountability. We will be using research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life. The situation surrounding the RFS fits into our wheelhouse and I’ll be watching what the EPA does on this.

While this White House hasn’t always been viewed as a friend of the oil industry, this issue is a major test of that relationship and the EPA’s decision will offer a window into how much clout Big Oil actually has with the administration. If the Carlyle Group, Delta Airlines, and API get their way, it will demonstrate that Washington is still a place where backroom deals are made that put special interests ahead of the best interests of the American people.

Anne Weismann is the executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington.