Come January 1, fuel suppliers across California will have to abide by the state’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). The standard aims to reduce the “life-cycle carbon intensity” of fuels consumed by cars, trucks, and other vehicles by 10 percent over the coming decade and, in the process, even the playing field for low-carbon alternatives.
This coming year a carbon intensity baseline for gasoline and diesel sold in California will be established. Each year thereafter, the state will set a standard that is progressively lower. Fuel distributors will need to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel by blending in low-carbon fuels such as cellulosic biofuels, or by purchasing low-carbon credits earned by other firms that beat the standard.
“Those fuels with lower overall emissions will be incentivized, and those with higher emissions will be discouraged,” says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis and an architect of the LCFS.
Policy analysts such as Sperling predict that the LCFS will be the harbinger of smarter national and international fuel policies, in contrast to the rush into food-based fuels such as corn ethanol that offer little overall environmental benefit. “Until we adopt an LCFS nationally and internationally, policy will be politicized and ad hoc,” he says.
However, controversy has dogged measures pending in Washington and Brussels as scientists and politicians struggle for consensus on ways to evaluate life-cycle emissions. A flashpoint is whether and how to measure greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use changes. An example of this would be the clearing of a forest to grow food crops to make biofuels.
What is clear is that the LCFS will help make some alternative fuel technologies more viable than others. Dan Kammen, co-director of the University of California’s Berkeley Institute of the Environment and another architect of the LCFS, says battery-powered vehicles should win big, given California’s preference for natural gas-fired power generation and the high efficiency of electric drivetrains. “Because of the very low emissions per mile traveled for electric vehicles versus all liquid fuels, the LCFS could strongly advance electrified transport,” says Kammen.
Electric vehicle players are already scrambling to capture the benefits. The California Air Resources Board in Sacramento has determined that charging an electric vehicle will result in 43 percent as much carbon dioxide emissions, mile for mile, as burning gasoline. Charging electric vehicles should thus generate credits under the LCFS that fuel companies can buy to offset the carbon-intensity of higher-carbon fuels.