Inhofe presses Biden nominee about EPA’s handling of small refinery operations

Senate committee members question Goffman on RFS, SREs |


The President’s nominee to be a top EPA official faced some stiff questioning Wednesday by Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe about the administration’s energy efforts and how they affect the nation’s supply of aviation fuel.

Joseph Goffman, Biden’s nominee to be Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA went before Inhofe and others on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Inhofe used the confirmation hearing to query Goffman about the EPA’s recent small refinery exemption petition denials and for not considering factors of disproportionate economic hardship, such as inflation.

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The following is the line of questioning by Sen. Inhofe:

Inhofe: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am very comfortable, and we have known each other for a long period of time, dating back almost 30 or 40 years, and people wonder, in the outside world, how you can be opposed to a person and still maintain a friendship. We have successfully done that and I have always appreciated that. 

Mr. Goffman, we all agree on the need for a safe and smart transition away from the aviation gas [avgas], but we also must ensure that there is no disruption for general aviation in the process. Unfortunately, without a clean and clear transition, airports may begin unilaterally prohibiting the availability of leaded avgas, and I have quite an extensive background in aviation, so, maybe I am more sensitive to this than most people. 

But, I’d like to ask for unanimous consent to enter into the record the attached letter from the Avgas Coalition, expressing serious concerns on the unilateral decision of one airport to prohibit the sale of leaded avgas. 

Chairman: Without objection, so ordered. 

Inhofe: Now, Mr. Goffman, I want to read the question that I will ask you, and there is a reason for that. Mr. Goffman, will you commit to fostering a safe and smart transition away from leaded avgas and working with the Federal Aviation Agency [FAA] and industry to ensure that fuels available today remain available until a solution is fully approved and widely available? 

Goffman: Senator, thank you very much for that question, because I think that to the extent Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] plays a role in all of this, we are wanting to avoid exactly what you are wanting to avoid, which is disruption in the availability of airports and of flying options, including to individual pilots. 

What we are trying to do is two-fold: one is to make a determination, first and foremost, of whether or not lead from certain aircraft is presenting a threat to public health and the environment. At the same time, once we get through that process, which we still have a way to go and is essentially a scientific process. Then, if we determine that it is presenting a threat, say, to children living around airports, then we will take the next step of addressing the different options we might have for dealing with that problem. And, I think, as part of that process, we would certainly be committed to finding a solution that works for everybody, including not disrupting any transition from the current leaded fuel use to the next. 

Inhofe: Mr. Goffman, that is the very reason that I worded it the way I did, because this disruption could be a problem for a lot of people, and I want to make sure that is fully considered, and I think your statement is a good response.

Now, as you know, the small refinery exemption provision that is found the Clean Air Act were written to ensure small refineries experiencing disproportionate economic hardship could obtain relief. Now, Oklahoma ranks among the top states that would be interested in a question like this. 

In December of 2021, your office proposed blanket denials of 65 pending small refinery petitions, and, in April, your office denied 37 small refinery petitions dating back to 2018. 

Now, Mr. Goffman, considering that inflation is at 8.3 percent, is disproportionate economic hardship no longer considered when reviewing these petitions? Is that no longer used as a consideration—that type of hardship? 

Goffman: Well senator, I’m glad you asked that question, because it gives me a chance to give you an update on where we are on what is a complicated issue and one that the federal courts across the country have weighed in on. I think I understand why, given what people are facing at the pump right now, everybody would be wondering whether the action we are proposing to take, and, in some cases took with respect to small refineries, is going to have an impact in making matters worse for drivers. 

I believe the answer is no, but what is really important is that in the last two or three years a number of federal courts handed down opinions about how we have implemented the small refinery exemptions. And, basically the message they sent us is: EPA you got to pay attention precisely what your authority to address hardship is and isn’t, and you got to pay attention to your own analysis of the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard [RFS] program on fuel markets. And basically, senator, the course they have been telling us is to get our story straight. 

So, what we were trying to do in December, was to respond to those remands, lay out our thinking, lay out our analysis, and then ask the small refinery exemption applicants to respond to what we had proposed and provide additional information in support of their applications. We still, as you pointed out, have about 30 applications pending, we have not made a decision on, although we hope to, and plan to, issue decisions on those applications shortly. In doing so, really be clear, once and for all, as to what the law is, what our analysis shows, and then provide certainty for all stakeholders in the RFS program as to what the road going forward looks like. 

Inhofe: Well, as you know, the small refinery exemptions provision was written to ensure that small refineries experiencing disproportionate economic hardship could obtain relief. What types – has anything been released so far that would directly address this? 

Chairman: Mr. Inhofe, I ask that you ask this question briefly, because we have others that are waiting to ask questions.  

Goffman: Yes, I think our proposal tried to provide—our December proposal which we referred to—tried to provide a comprehensive explanation of how we now understand that authority, what it obligates us to do, and, particularly, what the federal courts have told us the limits of our authority are. 

Inhofe: Well, in December, you referred to your office— 

Chairman: Senator Inhofe, I’m going to ask you to— 

Inhofe: Blanket denials of 65 pending small refinery petitions, do you consider that a determination that was made in a very thoughtful way and is this any finality to that action? 

Chairman: Again, please respond briefly. 

Goffman: Yes, to the first question. Was it thoughtful? Yes. Was it the final word, so to speak, on this program? No, because we are going to continue to weigh each application on its own merits.

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