California's Decision on Low Carbon Fuel Standard Will Impact Entire Country

Carbon footprint of ethanol is being unfairly judged.

Published on: Apr 22, 2009

The California Air Resources Board is slated to vote on a proposed low carbon fuel standard Thursday in Sacramento. The proposal is a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed air regulators to develop a rule that would help boost the amount of renewable fuels available to California motorists, truck drivers, recreational boaters and in-state train operators.

"We see this as a model for the rest of the country and the world to follow," said Air Resources Board member Dan Sperling, a transportation expert and professor at the University of California, Davis. Indeed, a goal for low-carbon fuels was included in the latest climate bill introduced in Congress.

While the regulation calls for reducing the carbon content in California's transportation fuels 10% by 2020, representatives of the petroleum and ethanol industries are objecting to how the state proposes to achieve that and say the policy has an inherent bias against low-carbon biofuels.

Although the CARB says they want to give petroleum refiners, fuel blenders and distributors the choice of how to gradually reduce carbon and which fuels to use, increasing numbers of university professors, scientists, researchers, and industry trade organizations have registered their opposition to adoption of the LCFS proposal in its present form. They say incomplete and misguided research being used in the proposal will work against the U.S. government's goal of achieving energy independence through development of renewable fuels, particularly against Midwestern corn-based ethanol.

Under the proposal, all carbon emissions related to the production of fuels would be accounted for. The board is looking at indirect land use data that uses greenhouse gas emissions anywhere in the world if they are related to the production of biofuels in the U.S., even indirectly.

"It's a total shell game. There's no way you can prove that growing corn in Iowa has anything to do with destroying the Amazon forest in Brazil," said Tom Koehler, a policy adviser at Pacific Ethanol. "You cannot connect the dots with a straight face."

CARB members say that they are trying to put in place a durable and doable policy that sends the right investment signals and in which the marketplace will decide which fuels are going to be the winner. However the harsh carbon grading being used for corn-based ethanol in the proposal seems to limit the attractiveness of that renewable fuel.

Tom Buis, chief executive officer of Growth Energy, a coalition advocating ethanol, insists that corn-produced fuel is being unfairly singled out. "We're not saying, 'California, bail us out,'" he said. "We're saying, 'California, treat us equally.'"

Groups ranging from the National Corn Growers Association to the American Farm Bureau Federation to the Renewable Fuels Association have been voicing their opposition to the proposal.

In written comments to the board, the RFA outlined four areas of CARB's Initial Statement of Reasons concerning the LCFS that are particularly troubling to conventional and next generation ethanol producers. Those include insufficient land use change analysis, direct emissions, food versus fuel and the LCFS baseline.

According to RFA the indirect land use change models being used by CARB are not accurate and use pessimistic assumptions in reaching their outcomes. Also despite recent data showing reduced greenhouse emissions from ethanol, CARB is using data from 2001 to 2006. RFA recommends using more current assessments and projections for estimating the direct energy intensity of ethanol production.

CARB also fails to account for dried distillers grain co-product from ethanol production that is returned to the livestock feed market and their assumptions of crop yield improvements are far too conservative. RFA suggests CARB needs to reassess its criteria to include the important contributions of DDGS as well as the expected increases and trend-line yield improvements of U.S. crops.

Under the proposal, CARB is using as a baseline California Reformulated Gasoline, which includes a 10% blend of ethanol, so in effect, ethanol is being forced to compete against itself, unlike any other regulated fuel. The RFA recommends CARB use a non-ethanol-blended fuel as the baseline fuel.

The California Air Resources Board meets Thursday and Friday in Sacramento. To submit comments to the board, click HERE.