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

Roland Hwang

Posted April 22, 2009

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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.

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Anonymus PersonApr 22 2009 11:33 AM

I hope you know that global warming cannot be solved. Global warming is a natural process of the earth and we as humans are only making everything worse for it. i mean no disrespect towards you.


Jim Bullis, Miastrada Co.Apr 23 2009 05:24 PM

Honest accounting, hurray.

Oops. What about that plug-in falsehood that was demonstrated in the EPRI-NRDC study. See for both the full report and the NRDC summary.

By far the most dangerous pollution in the world is ignorance. Clear discussion including both reason and commonly understood terminology is the best counter to that ignorance, and where such discussion can become quantitative, the whole thing moves to a level where one can make sensible choices.

Those who think that plug-in hybrid cars are "low carbon" (and they mean carbon dioxide) are victims of deceit. Hybrid cars can be built that reduce the amount of energy wasted by their operation. A frequently quoted study by NRDC and EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute.) provided quantitative results that showed that CO2 emissions were increased by making that hybrid into a plug-in.

That same report included an explanation of "marginal response" to added electric loads, which tells us that coal will be the inescapable source of power which will charge the plug-in's batteries.

An exception could be if by taxing or capping means, coal became a lesser favored market choice of fuel, then the responding fuel source could become natural gas. In good times or bad, it seems politically inconceivable that the present cost of coal energy, at about $1 per million BTU could be handicapped to make it unfavorable in comparison with natural gas at $3.80 per million BTU (futures are priced for delivery in about a year at around $6 or $7). And even if natural gas is the fuel choice, the plug-in will not be much of an improvement over the hybrid, according to the NRDC/EPRI study mentioned above.

In California, by almost banning coal fired electric power generation, we like to think we have made a step forward. There are even impediments to buying electricity from out of state sources. One can understand this to be illusionary leadership, with the realization that the increased use of natural gas in California that would cause the price of natural gas to go up, is immediately balanced away by the rest of the country that simply increases their use of coal; and consequently the price of natural gas remains stable, more or less.

Secy. Chu could certainly understand these things if he had time to wade through the obfuscations of the promoters of plug-in cars. The Obama administration does not need the embarrassment of this enormous error. The California authorities should also figure things out, though it might be a little complicated for political figures.

Surely NRDC does not need more embarrassment like having campaigned vigorously for ethanol just before the bad part came out. The looming plug-in disaster will make that error seem like forgetting a birthday.

kendall linzeeApr 24 2009 07:12 AM

I was beginning to think the CARB emitted more CO2 than petroleum. I hadn't read Searchinger's ''famous'' bio-fuel dooms-day prediction until just now. His NPR interview was so vague and almost vitriolic that I couldn't take him seriously. The guys from renewable fuels center in Co. sounded so much more positive. Oh well.. Thank god somebody did a land-use study. It does make a lot of assumptions and calculations based on "current trends". Cleaner farming and production isn't impossible is it? There are far too many combustion engines running our world, not to get them running cleaner. We have to go forward with Bio-fuels. Might as well, a lot of states all ready have. At least now we have some "known knowns". Maybe we need a land use czar.?? One things for sure, our auto makers have been using just about the worst possible engine designs to run the stuff. The other guys haven't given us much. Toyota and Nissan's biggest trucks offer a flex-fuel. But that's about it.
Mercedes has a six cylinder flex-fuel and diesels, Audi and VW diesels and reasonable mpg. A lot of people are unaware of their options. The state will help you pass smog etc. Surely programs like that will improve.
Anyway thanks for spelling it out Roland.
I wonder who's doing the study on big lithium?
So it's wrong for me to purchase corn based ethanol? Even though my old Saab turbo likes the stuff.?? It runs cleaner.
I'm confused.

KGApr 24 2009 01:06 PM

The land use study is bogus. It uses data dating back to 2001. Its like saying the great depression's data could be used just fine to determine things about the current recession. It also did not adjust for corn yield changes during the period from 2001-2009 and did not take the CRP acres into account. USE FACTS WHEN YOU MAKE CONCLUSIONS, NOT ASSUMPTIONS.

Bill BrandonApr 24 2009 04:05 PM

This is a complicated subject that needs more discussion and investigation. Over 200 scientists wrote CARB stating indirect land use factors applied to biofuels was unscientific at this time. It does put an unjustified burden on ethanol and I think Wesley Clarke is correct in his statements. But the truth about ethanol really lies in its fuel quality. Since ethanol was first compared to gasoline by the navy in 1907 - 1908, it has been known that ethanol is a superior, more efficient fuel. Matthew Brusstar with the EPA has demonstrated that it can be almost twice as efficient (twice the thermal efficiency, the ability to convert BTU' to kinetic energy) as gasoline. The problem with the low carbon fuel standard is that it stops with BTU's. If we can get twice the work (moving a vehicle down the road) from the same amount of BTU's, that fuel could have twice 'carbon intensity' and we would be at a break even position as far as the environment. I use an E25 blend (25% ethanol) in my Prius and get better than a 10% increase in mileage using this lower energy density fuel. This is about a 20% increase in thermal efficiency. This ethanol blend promotes an almost complete combustion of gasoline in the engine ( and almost none being "combusted" in the converter). My tested emission readings are great and although I am reducing my tail pipe CO2 emissions by something like 25%, these mid-grade ethanol blends remain illegal to sell. Efficiency is the name of the game, yet these factors are left out of the Low-carbon Fuel Standard and remain illegal. Go figure who has the influence.

algaepreneurApr 29 2009 10:15 AM

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