State set to limit carbon dioxide emissions

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California's air regulators will consider today whether to enact the world's first rule reducing the carbon footprint and climate effects of transportation fuels. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports.

Molly Peterson: With past rules, the state's nearly eliminated other pollutants that contribute to global warming. But the amount of carbon dioxide released by gas burning in an engine is the same as ever.

Anthony Eggert advises the Air Resources Board on science policy. He says California's goal is to change the engines we use and, with this rule, the fuels we put in them.

Anthony Eggert: Even by 2020 we expect a fifth, 20 percent of all transportation fuels in the state to be non-petroleum. And that would be something that we've never been able to accomplish in our whole history of doing this.

Peterson: The proposal would set a value on a fuel's "carbon intensity" – how much greenhouse gas it produces in its lifetime – and then would limit what distributors can sell based on that value. Patricia Monahan of the Union of Concerned Scientists likes the plan.

Patricia Monahan: The beauty of this standard is that it basically sets a performance standard and then lets fuels compete in the marketplace to meet the standard. It doesn't pick winners and losers. It just evaluates the carbon footprint of each of these fuels.

Peterson: So, for petroleum, it counts emissions from when oil is extracted from the ground, or when a refinery processes crude, or when a car engine burns gas. That cradle-to-grave accounting, Eggert says, also counts indirect effects. For biofuels, that includes land-use related emissions – such as farming where forests once stood.

Eggert: The emissions that are released from the conversion of land from its natural use into another use, including crops. This is a factor that has been left off of past assessments. For example, we have a value in there for corn as well as sugarcane.

Peterson: Ethanol investors don't like factoring in land-use emissions from policies in Indonesia toward corn ethanol's carbon score in this country. Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance says the state's models are speculative and harmful to his industry.

Brooke Coleman: If you're going to assess biofuels based on their well-to-wheel emissions and then add on whatever an economic model spits out, then you should do that for petroleum, natural gas, electricity. And so we're just asking for fairness across the board.

Peterson: The state's method assigns some corn ethanol a heavier carbon footprint than petroleum. Ethanol made with Brazilian sugarcane produces more greenhouse gas than biodiesel from soy.

California's seen an upswing in advanced biofuels, made from agricultural waste or trash – the least carbon intense. Shell Oil's Graeme Sweeney says petroleum companies are watching closely.

Graeme Sweeney: I think that the standards that are set here will strongly influence the U.S. federal standards, and I believe U.S. federal standards will indeed strongly influence global standards.

Peterson: Sweeney says the combustion engine is still king. But now that 11 other states, the federal government, and Europe are considering low carbon fuel standards, Shell expects changes in the market for what runs that engine. The company has been increasing its investment in biodiesel including the lower carbon kind.