RELIANCE - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt visited a central South Dakota farm on Wednesday, and state farmers were not afraid to let him know what they thought about his time in office so far.
In short, they're not thrilled about it, and they're demanding that something change.
"As I came to South Dakota, there were a few billboards greeting me, and they didn't say 'I hope you're having fun,'" Pruitt said. Instead, the administrator said he saw messages imploring him to support ethanol over big oil refineries.
After touring a farm operated by Adam Schindler and his family in Reliance, Pruitt addressed a group of about 50 farmers and other people with interests in agriculture in a building on the Schindler property. He then responded to questions from a number of farmers.
In total, the event took about two hours and was closed to the public. EPA officials said Pruitt took about an hour-long tour of the farm and then had a roundtable discussion with farmers, as well.
Pruitt's event in Reliance was private and not publicized ahead of time. The Daily Republic newspaper in Mitchell arrived on site early Wednesday and was told it could not enter the event, but EPA officials later changed course and allowed a reporter inside the building where the discussion was taking place.
"We want to be respectful, but we want to very forcefully convey to the administrator that we've got real challenges in rural America and we have to preserve the markets that we have," said John Duff, strategic business director for National Sorghum Producers, the organization that hosted the event. "There are real challenges on the farm, and demand destruction for biofuels is not good. It is something that we do not need in the face of ag processes the way they are today, and we want to convey that message."
Duff said Pruitt's visit, which made South Dakota the 35th state he's been to during his time in office, came at an ideal time, as it coincided with a national discussion about ethanol. Pruitt has been the EPA Administrator since February 2017.
One of the biggest concerns among those in attendance was the EPA's recent increase in the number of refineries receiving financial hardship waivers, which waive the requirement for refiners to obtain Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs).
According to the EPA's website, financial hardship waivers are intended to prevent disruptions in the fuel supply. Many of the farmers who spoke to Pruitt said that they felt the waiver increase was hurting their farms and their income.
"Two of these companies that they handed waivers to made over a billion dollars last year," farmer David Fremark said. "I don't know what kind of hardship that is, but it's not like the hardship that I'm used to on the farm."
Pruitt said that it's important to understand that the EPA works alongside other government agencies to go through applications and determine who can receive a waiver.
"It's not a decision the EPA makes in isolation. We actually receive applications from the Department of Energy. They have a methodology; they have formulas," he said. "If you go back through time with respect to the applications, when RIN prices have gone up ... applications have gone up. So that's what we've seen, is a spike in applications."
Several farmers were not satisfied with this explanation, and one suggested that if the formulas used by the DOE were hurting farmers, maybe those formulas should be revisited.
"A spike? That's more than a spike. That's a moonshot," Fremark said.
Schindler, in an EPA statement, said he appreciated the chance for the conversation with Pruitt.
"Biofuels policy has an important impact on the value of the crops we produce on our farm," he said. "I am glad we were able to have that conversation with the Administrator today and to hear a sorghum oil pathway is near completion."
Earlier in the day, Pruitt met with about 45 employees at NorthWestern Energy in Sioux Falls. Pruitt's office reported they discussed the impacts of the Clean Power Plan on South Dakota residents. Other topics included the commitment to cooperative federalism, reforms to the EPA's Regional Haze Program and permitting improvements.
"It's important to hear directly from the community that EPA regulates, and today we heard from farmers and utility workers about the impact of the Agency's work," Pruitt said in a statement. "From the Renewable Fuel Standard to the so-called 'Clean Power Plan,' we are working hard to fulfill the agency's true mission while providing certainty to stakeholders in South Dakota and across the country."
Also discussed was the Waters of the U.S. rule and a sorghum oil pathway rule. The Waters of the U.S. is a 2015 rule from President Barack Obama's administration that called for the extension of federal regulatory authority over small bodies of water, including dry streams and ditches. The EPA moved earlier this year to block that measure, which has been roundly criticized in South Dakota since it was created.