Can Cutting Carbon Fuel Growth?

The perennial debate returns, this time at a symposium on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard

Daniel Sperling, director of UC Davis' Institute for Transportation Studies, speaking at the Asilomar Conference in 2011.

Do environmental regulations boost innovation and job creation, or do they just make the state a more expensive place in which to live and do business?

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), the section of California’s landmark 2006 global warming act that deals with the decarbonization of transport fuels, has become the latest focus of that debate.

The enforcement element of LCFS begins January 1, 2013. But the standard—complex and 5 years in the making—remains largely unknown to the public.

In Sacramento Tuesday, stakeholders and transportation experts sought to bring more attention to the LCFS at symposium sponsored by Fueling California, an industry trade group whose board members include United Airlines, Walmart, Chevron and the Automobile Club of Southern California.

The standard calls for a 10% reduction in the “carbon intensity” of gasoline and diesel by 2020. It’s the first in the United States to use a “life cycle” evaluation for counting carbon, meaning that every stage of production from drilling (or cultivation in the case of biofuel) to combustion is tallied—an approach called “seeds to wheels.”

The oil industry is opposed to the standard in its current form, arguing there simply won’t be enough biofuels on the market to achieve compliance (many biofuels have a lower carbon intensity than conventional fuels and blending is a favored solution). Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, says the supply of Midwestern corn ethanol has already been tapped out. And the next go-to source—sugarcane ethanol from Brazil—won’t be available in sufficient quantities to meet increasingly stringent requirements, she says.

The trucking industry is also balking, complaining that California’s diesel prices are already high, and will only go higher.  But environmental groups and the California Air Resources Board, counter that the standard will drive innovation in the state’s biofuels sector. They add that LCFS does not mandate how oil companies should reduce carbon intensity, leaving them myriad options of how to do so.

Despite industry top-heaviness in Fueling California, Simon Mui of the National Resources Defense Council had a place at the table, as did Timothy O’Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund and Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Sperling pointed out that the oil industry is lagging far behind the automobile industry on greenhouse gas reductions, proof that it needs a nudge.

Cellulosic ethanol, a blend-in biofuel made from wood chips and other plant matter, is considered the holy grail of ethanols because it doesn’t compete with the food supply. But development of low-cost cellulosic ethanol has eluded researchers to date. Reheis-Boyd says without cellulosic ethanol, compliance with LCFS becomes impossible around 2015.

Sperling said that the oil industry continues to look at biofuels as a commodity to be used to achieve compliance. Rather than speculating about an eventual shortage, he said the industry needs to start investing more to develop the next generation of biofuels itself.
Can Cutting Carbon Fuel Growth? 20 June,2012Thibault Worth

3 thoughts on “Can Cutting Carbon Fuel Growth?”

  1. As long as growth is the objective, not sustainability, then the solution to our problems will never come. Unfortunately, we have a political climate that requires growth tomorrow to pay for today’s debts.

  2. I request a rewrite. First, there needs to be more background on how you take carbon atoms out of the fuel mix. Aren’t we talking about the most prevalent element on Earth? I’m not getting that part. Second, I would like to see some sort of follow-up (or maybe even pushback) to the accepted-as-offered supposition from CARB that regulation drives innovation. How so? Is this another way to say that humans will always try to find ways to overcome adversity? In this case, artificial adversity?

    Overall though, this was a good first effort at the article. Keep at it!

    1.  You don’t really remove carbon from existing fuels.  What you do is increase the volume of fuels whose carbon is made from sunshine (biomass) and reduce the volume of fuels whose carbon comes out of the ground (coal, petroleum).  Carbon from the ground is a net addition to atmosphere.  Carbon made from sunshine is drawn out of the  air as CO2 so its net addition to the atmosphere is much lower.  I agree with pushback on regulation driving innovation.

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