Setting a Bad Precedent: British Columbia's Weak Low Carbon Fuel Standard Needs Repair

(Note, this is a joint blog with Gillian McEachern, Manager of Environmental Defense's Climate and Energy Program) 

Today Environmental Defence Canada and NRDC are releasing a comparison of the low carbon fuel standards (LCFS) of California and British Columbia.

The verdict?

BC’s is a hundred pound weakling next to Schwarzenegger’s muscle. This is a shame in light of other good things that BC is doing on climate change – but this one has backfired due to the bad precedent it has set.

Our comparison comes at a time of intense lobbying by the Canadian government and tar sands industry in an attempt to weaken fuels progress in California, Washington, DC, and the European Union.

Unfortunately, the industry is already trotting out the weak BC standard in its attempts to undermine progressive action. The BC approach fails to do what the LCFS is supposed to do – require fuel suppliers to account for differences in global warming for different fuels. It ignores any accounting for high-carbon petroleum fuels. Nor does it separate the good biofuels from the bad ones. As such, unless it is fixed, the BC LCFS will likely do more harm than good in fighting global warming around North America and the world.

A LCFS is supposed to require that the “life cycle” carbon emissions of transportation fuels – the amount of pollution created by producing, transporting and burning the fuel – goes down over time. It is a tool that governments can use to cut global warming pollution and reduce oil dependency in the transportation sector.

California and BC are the first jurisdictions in North America to adopt low carbon fuel standards. They both set the same goal – to reduce the carbon content of fuel by 10% by 2020 – but that’s about the only similarity between the two.

While California requires fuel suppliers to account for carbon-heavy oil they sell, like tar sands oil, BC allows them to lump all fossil fuel together as if all are created equal from a carbon pollution perspective. Yet the life cycle carbon content of tar sands oil is 15-40% higher than conventional oil. This lets suppliers of tar sands oil off the hook for reducing emissions, and puts more burden on everyone else to do more than their fair share.

Already, roughly half of BC’s oil comes from the tar sands, and this is likely to increase as tar sands production ramps up over the next decade. As it stands, BC’s LCFS will do little to prevent the rise in global warming pollution that will result. The accounting loophole could allow a worsening petroleum mix to completely offset the benefits from any additional low carbon fuels used.

On biofuels, another glaring difference between the BC and California standards is in their treatment of the land use impacts of various biofuels. When land is used to grow biomass for fuel instead of food, new areas of forest or wetlands will inevitably be turned into farmland. This can have a big impact on the carbon stored in the ground, and when it is taken into account, some biofuels can lead to higher life cycle carbon emissions than fossil fuels. California, the U.S. EPA, and the European Union have all conducted significant analysis and modeling to account for this significant impact while BC has arbitrarily given a zero value without justification.  

Low carbon fuel standards should encourage a transition to alternative fuel sources that produce less emission. The California standard achieves this by taking the land use impacts of biofuels into account, and can help drive innovation and research on new sources of fuel. The BC standard fails to do this, and thus props up some biofuels that may in fact be worse for the climate.