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California Approves Emissions Reductions

KEVIN YAMAMURA, McClatchy Newspapers – Apr. 23, 2009

California became the first state in the nation Thursday to mandate carbon-based reductions in transportation fuels in an attempt to cut the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The California Air Resources Board approved a phased-in reduction starting in 2011, with a goal of shrinking carbon impacts 10 percent by 2020. Fuel producers can comply in different ways, such as providing a cleaner fuel portfolio, blending low-carbon ethanol with gasoline or purchasing credits from other clean-energy producers.

California’s low-carbon fuel standard could lead to a national measure under President Barack Obama, as well as shape how the transportation sector evolves. But businesses and oil industry critics warned that more research is necessary and that its action would lead to higher costs for consumers in a recessionary economy.

Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols hailed the low-carbon fuel standard as a major step in moving the nation away from oil dependence and toward alternative fuels that generate lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“By changing the way we think about fuels and requiring them all to be lower carbon, I think we are now finally creating an opportunity for other types of advanced transportation to compete on a level playing field,” Nichols said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the air board in 2007 to consider a low-carbon fuel standard as way to meet the state’s overall goal of cutting greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020, as mandated by a 2006 law.

The air board looked at the entire carbon “intensity” of fuels, rather than the impact of emissions from use alone. That meant considering the emissions from the start of production to lasting impacts not directly related to fuel supply.

That led to some controversy over the air board’s regulations dealing with corn-based ethanol producers.

A staff analysis assigned additional greenhouse-gas consequences to their fuels alone based on the potential impacts that ethanol production has on forests and green space. The theory is that increased ethanol production reduces the existing amount of farmland for food crops, which in turn leads to cultivation of untouched land that previously captured carbon.

Ethanol advocates challenged the report’s findings, disputing that their corn-based production had a significant impact on greenhouse-gas increases elsewhere. But they also suggested that petroleum and other fuels were not given the same treatment.

Gen. Wesley Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, testified on behalf of Growth Energy, an ethanol advocacy group. He said that greenhouse-gas emissions related to the U.S. military in the Middle East should be considered as part of oil’s calculation.

“There are indirect effects for many fuels, but the only indirect effects that have been looked at are the indirect effects in land use for biofuels,” Clark said. “So if we’re going to look at indirect effects, and I think we should, you have to take a broader look and roll in more.”

The air board promised to work with ethanol producers to update formulas related to the indirect effects of fuels as warranted by future research. But it stood by its findings that other fuels did not have significant indirect impacts.

“The preliminary analysis is there is no other fossil fuel option that has any direct land use effect that comes anywhere near any of the biofuels,” said Daniel Sperling, an air board member and a University of California-Davis transportation studies expert. “We will be looking carefully to make sure that initial assessment is correct. But I do want to make it clear there was no effort just to focus on the biofuels.”

Environmentalists and health organizations praised the low-carbon fuel standard as a significant step toward shrinking the state’s carbon footprint and providing cleaner air for residents.

Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the National Resources Defense Council, said the ethanol regulation is appropriate because it will force ethanol producers to seek cleaner and more sustainable forms of fuel production.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association of California, testified that the new fuel standard would help “reverse the legacy of negative air quality, public health and environmental impacts from petroleum fuels.”

But oil producers said too many uncertainties surrounded the new regulation and could lead to unintended consequences, such as supply problems.

“We know that when (consumers) want fuel, they want it when they want it and where they want it, and they want it to be affordable,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd of the Western States Petroleum Association. “And if they don’t have that, they’re usually pretty expressive about how unhappy they may be.”

Small business groups also testified in opposition Thursday, some noting that California could hurt its businesses by forcing them to pay higher costs to comply.

“We’re doing this alone, and what concerns us is that we might really put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage,” said Mark Martinez, CEO of the San Joaquin County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “So I want to caution you to really evaluate the concerns of the economy and our small businesses.”

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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