Time to Watch Those CARBs -- and Oils

The California Air Resources Board has a less than glorious record on furthering the cause of alternative fuels - hardly reassuring as it takes up a crucial issue in the fight to curb global warming.

A few years ago, CARB caved to pressure from the oil and car industries and gave the green light that enabled GM and the rest of the automotive behemoths to "kill" the electric car. Now it is on the brink of performing another disservice to the future of the planet - this time by considering the adoption of an unproven, brand new method of "carbon scoring" different fuel types that happens to discriminate heavily in favor of old-fashioned fossil fuels like oil and gas and penalize biofuels.

What makes the new method particularly disturbing is that it has been developed with money from the Energy Biosciences Institute, a controversial research outfit at UC Berkeley funded entirely by British Petroleum (and supported, at the time of its founding in 2007, by Steven Chu, now Barack Obama's Energy Secretary).

That, in turn, raises questions about the integrity of California's effort to get oil companies to diversify into other forms of fuel and cut their carbon emissions by 10 per cent before 2020 - the Low Carbon Fuel Standard program unveiled more than two years ago by Governor Schwarzenegger.

CARB's decision, which has already been drafted and may or may not be made final on the first day of a two-day board meeting in Sacramento today, will be crucial not just to the fight against global warming in California. The means it chooses to determine the carbon intensity of different fuel types is likely to set the standard nationally, if not also globally. So a great deal is at stake.

The methodology is not without its complications, but essentially CARB has two choices.

The first is to "carbon score" different fuel types based on their chemistry and means of production alone, the so-called "well to wheels" model known by the acronym GREET which has been used and fully peer-reviewed.

The second choice is to try to throw in considerations of broader economic and geopolitical realities. That's not a bad idea in and of itself. It's hard to assess the total environmental cost of importing oil from the Middle East without considering, say, the fuel burned on the tanker that brings it to the United States, or considering the impact of the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq. The problem with the model being touted by CARB, though, is that it looks at these indirect factors in the context of biofuels only. It factors in the cost of driving ethanol by truck from Iowa to California, but lets oil and gas off the hook completely for comparable factors.

A group of more than 100 scientists specializing in energy and the environment have written both to Governor Schwarzenegger and to Mary Nichols, who chairs CARB, to voice their concerns. "We're basically talking about increasing the carbon score of some alternative fuels by 40-200% based on dubious economic modeling that is nowhere near ready for prime time, and then to add insult to injury they are not doing the same economic analysis on other eligible fuels in the program or petroleum," the letter's lead signatory, Blake Simmons of the Sandia National Laboratory, said in a statement. "This is indefensible from either a scientific or public policy perspective and will ultimately fail."

Opponents of the CARB proposal have uncovered a nexus of connections between CARB's board members, research institutes like the Energy Biosciences Institute, and oil companies including BP, Chevron and Exxon. Intriguingly, board member Dan Sperling, who led the charge against the electric car in the early part of the decade, is now leading the charge against biofuels. Sperling is director of the Institute for Transportation Studies, whose donor list reads like a who's who of the automotive, oil and power industries. (Top contributors include Chevron, Toyota, Nissan, Daimler and Royal Dutch Shell.)

It remains to be proven whether the oil companies have exerted undue influence - although the appearances certainly don't look good -- just as it remains to be seen whether an economic model for carbon scoring can be made to work accurately and fairly.

In the meantime Dr. Simmons and his fellow scientists are urging CARB to pass a direct carbon scoring method only and turn the indirect, economic question over to an independent third party group. "We are concerned that unresolved issues related to indirect effects enforcement are needlessly eroding support for an otherwise critical fuel policy," says their letter to Nichols, written earlier this week. "We are therefore requesting that CARB immediately enact an LCFS [Low Carbon Fuel Standard] based on direct carbon effects while establishing an expeditious process to assess and account for indirect effects across all fuel pathways, including petroleum."

The ball is now in CARB's court.