Arbitrary, Thy Name is ARB: The Flaws in the California Air Resources Board Carbon Reduction Proposal

In our energy intensive economy, reducing carbon emissions is one of our greatest challenges, but also one of our most necessary goals. In the ongoing debate over how best to reduce carbon emissions (no longer whether we should), there are some who claim, without much scientific support, that continuing to burn petroleum is better than shifting to renewable biofuels.

This is the seemingly arbitrary assumption being made by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) in developing something known as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). On March 5, in issuing a proposed rule for a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), the ARB included questionable secondary, or indirect, greenhouse gas emissions that it assumes will be associated with expanded biofuels production. Based on faulty modeling, the agency is alleging that increased demand for crops for biofuels will trigger cultivation of non-agricultural lands (like grassland and forest) in the U.S. and abroad. They call this occurrence "indirect land use change." Cultivation of those lands would cause the release of stored carbon from the soil and vegetation, ARB says, and they argue those emissions should be debited to biofuels.

Yet, the agency failed to evaluate any indirect effects at all for oil production or gasoline consumption (or any other transportation fuels for that matter). Thus, ARB's biased finding is that gasoline is slightly better than many forms of ethanol and other biofuels. This position completely ignores environmentally disruptive projects like Canadian tar sands, the impact of expanding oil production in previously pristine forest regions such as those in South America or the mangrove forests in Nigeria, or the impact of sending tens of thousands of American soldiers to protect the sea lanes for shipping oil from the Persian Gulf. ARB's finding that ethanol is no better than gasoline also stands in stark contrast to a recent study published in Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology, which concluded modern-day ethanol reduces greenhouse gasses by 48-59% compared to conventional gasoline.

The other day 111 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences, UC-Berkeley, Sandia National Labs, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and MIT, among others, directly challenged that approach. These highly regarded scientists sent a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger questioning the ARB's approach (ARB) which oddly singles out biofuels for its supposed "indirect effects" on land use and alleged carbon emissions.

The scientists made two major compelling points. First, that the science is far too limited and uncertain for regulatory enforcement and, second, that indirect effects are often misunderstood and should not be enforced selectively.

The scientists pointed out,

that most primary forest deforestation is currently occurring in places like Brazil, Indonesia and Russia as a direct result of logging, cattle ranching and subsistence farming. Adding an iLUC (indirect Land Use Change) penalty to biofuels will hold the sector accountable to decision-making far outside of its control (i.e. for decisions related to the supply chains of other products), and is unlikely to have any effect on protecting forests or mitigating GHG emissions as a result of land management practices.

They also argued,

But because indirect effects are not enforced against any other fuel in the proposed LCFS, an iLUC penalty will chill investment in both conventional and advanced biofuel production, including advanced biofuels made from dedicated energy feedstocks such as switchgrass and miscanthus, which have the potential to make the agricultural sector far less resource-intensive and could provide a significant carbon negative source of transportation fuel.

The public has an opportunity to weigh in with the California Air Resources Board, which is holding a public workshop the week of March 23 to accept public comment on the proposed regulation. It is vital that everyone who supports reducing the nation's dependence on polluting tar sands or costly foreign oil weigh in with the ARB. And, if you support the consistent application of sound scientific analysis to all fuels and fuel sources, let the agency know that its "ARBitrary" approach is unacceptable.