The Loma Prietan - July/August 2009

"Decarbonizing" Our Fuel

Air Resources Board Releases New Standard

by Gladwyn d'Souza

Transportation is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. San Mateo's recent climate change audit showed, for example, that for cities in the Bay Area, transportation contributes 55% to the greenhouse gas emissions of this area. To decarbonize transportation we need vehicle efficiency (with lighter Neighborhood Electric Vehicles), reduced vehicle use (with walkable cities), and decarbonized fuels.

In April the California Air Resources Board (CARB) released a new standard for low carbon fuels, providing a single greenhouse gas performance measure for all transportation fuel providers (except for marine and air fuels which California presently does not control). In measuring the carbon emitted from fuel, the standard includes all the carbon emitted in the production and transportation of the fuel as well as in its consumption. The production element includes the land use effects of fuels; for example, it counts the carbon emitted by cutting down forests to grow crops for ethanol production.

The new standard supports California's commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by clearly laying out which fuels emit more carbon than others.

The new standard also addresses energy security versus climate change concerns through market mechanisms. For example, the standard rewards coal if it is gassified for hydrogen in a process that captures almost all its carbon. (In the current market environment, this is not an economic proposition, but as California enforces carbon reductions, the market may change; the new standard at least levels the playing field.)

CARB will use the United Kingdom's "default and opt-in" approach to enforcement: CARB assigns a value to each fuel; the burden is then on manufacturers to prove CARB wrong. However, CARB will need to be vigilant for "shuffling" or "leakage." Otherwise the fungible nature of fuel means that low carbon fuels can be shipped into the California market while the bad stuff goes elsewhere. To be effective the standard needs to be adopted worldwide, although this action from CARB can only be helpful.

The new standard is economically efficient because it comprehensively rewards innovation from industry. It avoids the start-stop ad-hoc pitfalls of alternative fuels experienced during the last 35 years under the Clean Air Act. The shortcoming of this plan is that it ignores a significant contributor to our emissions: bad land use planning by cities and counties. Perhaps legislation can address vehicle efficiency and reduced vehicle use next year.

Gladwyn d'Souza is chair of the Chapter Transportation Committee.