Even some enviros question LCFS schemes

The state Dept. of Ecology released a “discussion document” this week regarding the Inslee administration’s possible low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS), which aims to reduce the carbon-intensity of fuels. The public is invited give comment to Ecology regarding an LCFS program, which is outlined here.

The LCFS process is going forward in Washington just as some in the environmental community are starting to question the value of LCFS programs. A new report by the World Resources Institute advised governments to phase out LCFS programs and knocked biofuels for the destructive land use decisions they encourage.

“Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand,” the New York Times summarized. The report explained why LCFS programs are falling out of favor:

Proponents originally hoped that these laws would provide incentives to incorporate environmentally preferable biofuels, particularly those from cellulose, at a time when thinking about the greenhouse gas consequences of biofuels ignored land use implications.

The inefficiency of biofuels and the downsides of turning food-producing land over to fuel production are major problems. As we’ve pointed out on SGW before, a potential LCFS program in Washington has other hurdles to overcome.

  • A low-carbon fuel standard is one of the least cost-effective ways to reduce carbon.
  • Pairing an LCFS program with a cap-and-trade system, as the governor wants to do, makes little sense.
  • An LCFS program can be effective at reducing carbon, or it can be low-cost. It cannot be both.

It remains unclear where the biofuels needed for an LCFS program would even come from. The dreams of cellulosic ethanol are not even close to coming true.

In his 2007 book Apollo’s Fire, Gov. Inslee and his co-author wrote boldly, “It would be comforting to avoid the prospect of being proven wrong by the passage of time. But your authors are built of sterner stock. We refuse to take refuge in the privilege of punditry to cloak our comments in vague surmises.” Among their predictions:

  • “About 2011 meaningful amounts of cellulosic ethanol are becoming available at service stations across the country.”
  • “cellulosic ethanol will make a rapid penetration of the market.”

Todd Myers pointed out last summer:

This prediction has already proven to be incorrect. There was virtually no cellulosic ethanol available in 2011. Last year, two years after Inslee’s deadline, the EPA was forced to reduce its target for cellulosic biofuel production from 6 million gallons down to 810,185 gallons because it was all that was available. To put that in context, in 2013, the United States consumed 134.51 billion gallons of gasoline according to the Energy Information Administration. Cellulosic biofuel accounted for less than 0.001 percent of total fuel consumed in the United States – about 189 seconds worth of fuel last year.

Last fall the Capital Press highlighted a local experiment, funded by a $40 million grant, to explore producing cellulosic ethanol from poplar trees. “[The program manager] said cellulosic fuels could be made for about $4 a gallon, but that doesn’t include the cost of building a refinery, which could double the fuel price,” the paper wrote.

That didn’t make any economic sense then. Now with $2.15 a gallon gas, it makes even less sense now. With biofuels unlikely to provide a significant percentage of the world’s energy and with many questioning the wisdom of using vast tracts of land to grow those crops, now is a good time to put the brakes to an LCFS program here.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.