The Battle Over Biomass

This week, the California Air Resources Board is expected to pass a controversial new standard that measures the carbon footprint of transportation fuels. Reporter Marjorie Sun filed a story for Climate Watch on the measure and why the ethanol industry is fighting it. She provides some additional insights here:

The proposed low carbon fuel standard is part of a broad effort by the California regulators to roll greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.

biofuel pumpSlashing carbon emissions from cars and trucks is a big part of the state’s game plan. That’s because transportation accounts for 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. A whopping 96 percent of the fuel sources that power our cars and trucks is petroleum-based. Right now, the bulk of ethanol sold in California–and the rest of the United States for that matter—is corn-based. (Brazil makes its ethanol fuel from sugar cane, which has a smaller carbon footprint.) U.S. producers argue that the proposed Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) would make corn-based ethanol less competitive in the marketplace because of the way it calculates emissions. Pacific Ethanol was the biggest ethanol producer and marketer in California– until recently. With the drop in gasoline prices over the past year, demand for ethanol has plummeted. Over the past several months the company suspended operations at its two production plants in California and stopped construction of a third facility. In March, it filed for loan extensions with its creditors. So the new fuel standard could deliver yet another blow to the company. Hence, ethanol interests have been putting up a fight. But the Air Resources Board is counting on the proposed standard to spur innovation in the alternative fuels market, to reduce carbon emissions. The state says it’s hoping to “expand the size of the current renewable fuels market in California (already the largest in the nation) by three-to-five times. Instead of today’s corn, over half of the ethanol is likely to be made from extremely low-carbon, cellulosic feedstocks such as agricultural waste and switchgrass. There are numerous startups in California working on cellulosic ethanol. They’re experimenting with a wide range of plants, from switchgrass to algae, as potential sources of ethanol. Getting a new fuel to market, however, requires enormous capital costs. The state is projecting that by 2020, Californians will have bought more than 7 million alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles. That’s about 20 times greater than today. But in these tight economic times, folks are hanging onto their old cars. So it’s not clear how fast Priuses and plug-ins will replace the carbon-spewing cars on the road today.

Sun’s radio story aired Wednesday on The California Report.

The Battle Over Biomass 21 April,2009Craig Miller


Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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