Getting Biofuels Right Requires California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard to Have Honest GHG Accounting

This Thursday (April 23), the California Air Resources Board has a dramatic opportunity to help solve global warming and get biofuels right by adopting the nation's first Low Carbon Fuel Standard. To do so, California must stand up against two of the biggest, most powerful industries: Big Oil and Big Ethanol. Just like it has catalyzed the development of a whole host of cleaner technologies, such as 3-way catalytic converters and low sulfur gasoline, California can jump start the development of "green" biofuels by adopting the proposed LCFS which includes the impacts of direct and indirect land use conversion in its lifecycle accounting.

As with other groundbreaking California global warming pollution laws and regulations, California is once again poised to lead the nation and have its action serve as a model for similar national and state programs in the future.  The Low-Carbon Fuel Standard undoubtedly represents the future of fuels policy: roughly a dozen states are poised to adopt similar programs; a version of the LCFS is included in the new Waxman-Markey climate bill being debated in Washington now; and President Obama's Energy and Environmental Agenda includes the establishment of a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

There are three important reasons why it is necessary for CARB to adopt the LCFS regulation without delay:

First, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is absolutely necessary to meet global warming pollution emission reduction targets by ensuring that the oil industry makes its fair share contribution to the overall reductions. The 15 million metric tons of C02 reduction expected from the LCFS in 2020 is 9 percent of the total reductions required required by California's AB32 Global Warming Solutions Act. The LCFS's 10 percent C02 reduction goal for 2020 is the bare minimum needed to ensure that we are on the trajectory to decarbonize our fuel supply by 60 to 80 percent by 2050, which is our estimate of what is needed to meet long term targets, even with strong measures to address vehicles tailpipe emissions and reduce the demand for travel. Failure to require the oil industry to invest in and bring to market low carbon fuels means that other pollution sources --such as powerplants, natural gas providers, etc - will be forced to make up the difference in order to meet the requirements of AB32.

Second, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is necessary to discourage investments in high carbon fuels, or what we at NRDC call "dirty fuels". These fuels include tar sands from Canada, oil shale in the interior West, and liquid coal in various parts of the country. Reserves of these fuels are enormous and the global warming pollution and other environmental impacts are devastating. On a full fuel cycle basis, we estimate tar sands are about 20% more polluting and that oil shale and liquid coal can emit as much as twice the pollution as conventional gasoline. Hence, the use of dirty fuels can literally turn a hybrid into Hummer.  Large scale investments in these dirty fuels, some of which are already happening, will prevent California and this nation from being able to solve global warming. The LCFS is needed now to discourage investments in dirty fuels by ensuring that refiners that choose to use this fuel are responsible for offsetting the increased carbon emissions.

My third and final point is that the LCFS with a lifecycle accounting that includes emissions from indirect land use change and strong lands safeguards is needed to "get biofuels right". California is in a position to take bold, critical leadership to help put this country's biofuel policy on the right path. Unfortunately up to this point, our national biofuel policies have emphasized far too much the narrow interests of the corn ethanol industry over the public interest and are badly out of step with where we need to head to solve global warming.

Unfortunately for Big Ethanol, when it comes to global warming pollution, not all biofuels are created equal, some are clearly superior then others. Under the LCFS, producers of these superior, advanced biofuels will thrive and grow. That is why sixteen advanced biofuel companies and investors have voiced their support for the proposed LCFS. Despite the claim of the corn ethanol industry, the California LCFS will not damage their business because national law mandates a market for corn ethanol that will grow 2.5 times over next six years to 15 billion gallons. Furthermore, the LCFS is a benefit to efficient producers of corn ethanol, including those in this state, because efficiently produced corn ethanol will provide significant GHG credits, unlike the average corn ethanol from the Midwest.

Big Ethanol's aggressive attacks on the CARB LCFS proposal to include indirect land use change is already backfiring on their industry and is further tarnishing their already poor image outside of the Midwest. While indirect land use change is an "inconvenient truth" for Big Ethanol, that's no reason for the industry to deny that it exists. Big Ethanol claims the indirect land use change emissions are too high; in reality, if anything, the estimate is too low. CARB's proposal is just one-third of what Tim Searchinger estimated in his seminal peer-reviewed paper published in Science magazine.

The time for debate is over. When I and a handful of his key advisors met with Governor Schwarzenegger over two years ago and convinced him to support the LCFS, his mantra was (and still is) "action, action, action". I couldn't agree more. California must move forward to with the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and get on with the business of reducing global warming pollution.

About the Authors

Roland Hwang

Director, Energy & Transportation program

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