California’s looming blunder on biofuels

Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and co-founder of the Set America Free Coalition, is a coauthor of "Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century" and "Turning Oil into Salt: How Breaking the Oil Monopoly Can Make Us Prosper Again."

Next week, the California Air Resources Board, or CARB -- the same agency that only five years ago gained notoriety for its role in “killing” the electric car -- could be in a position to deliver another crippling blow to the United States’ effort to achieve energy independence.

As part of California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels, CARB is pushing for the enactment of a low-carbon fuel standard, or LCFS, that aims to regulate the emissions level of petroleum refiners, biofuels producers and others that produce or import the transportation fuels used in California. The credit or penalty would be assessed according to both the direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with each of the steps in the fuel’s life cycle, including production, transport and tailpipe emissions.

Such “cradle to grave” accounting sounds logical only if it allows all fuels to compete on an equal footing. But this is what the fuel standard in its current version fails to do.


At a time when the U.S. is charting its way out of its debilitating -- and growing -- oil dependence, CARB’s plan puts biofuels at a comparative disadvantage against petroleum. It does so by requiring that indirect greenhouse gas-emitting activities, such as deforestation and plowing up grasslands -- which are often associated with increased use of biofuels -- be considered, while failing to account for indirect carbon-emitting activities related to petroleum production. CARB’s explanation: “No other significant indirect effects that result in large greenhouse gas emissions have been identified.”

That statement may be true for roughly half of California’s oil, which is either drilled in the state or imported from Alaska, but certainly not for the half coming from distant places such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Colombia. Some of the direct carbon-intensive activities that CARB’s staff prefer to ignore are: pumping seawater into the wells of Saudi Arabia to increase reservoir pressure, transporting the crude to processing facilities where sulfur and other impurities are removed, and powering a tanker during a long voyage across two oceans.

But what makes their model truly discriminatory is the failure to account for the environmental impact of indirect activities, such as the military operations related to our oil use. The jets, tanks, ships and Humvees patrolling the Persian Gulf or used by the Special Forces protecting the oil pipelines in Colombia don’t run on vegetable oil, and the electricity powering military bases dedicated to protecting our access to oil is not made in wind farms. Ignoring those factors while speculating about the role of deforestation (much of the deforestation around the world has nothing to do with biofuels but with the logging industry) is intellectually dishonest.

Recent studies have shown that the amount of fossil fuel needed to make gasoline is nearly twice the amount needed for corn ethanol production, and more than 10 times that for cellulosic ethanol (made from switchgrass and other non-food plants). Further, there is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of using ethanol as fuel. The Argonne National Laboratory found that, on a per-gallon basis, even the most inefficient form of biofuel -- corn ethanol -- reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 18% to 29% compared with gasoline; sugar-cane ethanol reduces emissions by 56%, and cellulosic ethanol has an even greater benefit with a more than 80% reduction. A 2009 report commissioned by the International Energy Agency reached similar conclusions. Despite these clear benefits to the environment, CARB is bent on singling out biofuels as enemies of the planet.

Putting aside the costly bureaucratic nightmare the state of California would have to endure in analyzing the carbon footprint of each step in the pathway for each gallon of fuel sold in the state, the indirect carbon accounting could have a chilling effect on new investment and the development of new technologies -- all at a time when the nascent biofuels industry is already challenged by the economic downturn. This is all too unfortunate because scientific advancement is exactly what is needed to advance biofuels from corn to ultra-low carbon sources such as switchgrass, forestry residues, urban waste or algae.

The proposed standard is not simply a scientific or environmental issue. It is a matter of national security, which is threatened by our reliance on oil. With hundreds of billions of dollars leaving our economy annually to finance our oil dependence, it is also a matter of economic security.


It is often the case that as California goes, so goes the country. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should realize that implementing the fuel standard as proposed would only cement oil’s virtual monopoly in the transportation sector and dial back the progress made toward energy independence.