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Republican senators urge U.S. EPA to hold firm on refinery biofuel waivers

Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - Nine Republican U.S. senators on Wednesday urged the Trump administration's environmental regulator to disregard a request by Democratic senators to stop issuing waivers to oil refiners on requirements to blend biofuels into motor fuels.

The Republican senators including Jim Inhofe, Ted Cruz, and Pat Toomey, said ditching the waivers would put thousands of refinery workers at risk and boost gasoline and diesel prices.

"The waivers simply diminish the burden of this terrible mandate on the refineries least able to afford it, and therefore allow them to continue doing business," Toomey said in a release. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and President Donald Trump "should continue working to bolster our flourishing energy sector, not undermine it, Toomey said.

Refiner waivers are outlined in the U.S. biofuels law, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which was designed to help American farmers by requiring oil refiners to blend certain volumes of biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol, into their fuel each year or purchase credits from those that do.

Small refineries with a production capacity of 75,000 barrels per day or less can secure waivers if they prove that compliance would cause them financial harm.

But farmers and lawmakers that support them say the waivers are being used too frequently. Under Trump, the EPA has vastly expanded the number of waivers granted to refineries, angering farmers who say the policy destroys demand for ethanol and other biofuels at a time they are already struggling.

Trump's expansion of the waiver program has become an talking point for several Democrats vying to defeat him in the 2020 presidential election, including Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, who believe the issue can help turn farmers already stung by the trade wars against him.

The Republican senators were responding to a June 11 letter from Klobuchar and two other Democrats in the presidential campaign, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet, to the EPA's Wheeler, urging him to cease issuing the waivers. "Every waiver granted negatively impacts the rural economy," they said in the letter, signed by 12 Democrats in the 100-member chamber.

Trump has directed members of his Cabinet to review the administration's expanded waiver use, after hearing from angry farmers about the issue on a recent tour of the Midwest.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner Editing by Marguerita Choy)