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Sizing up fuels for the future

A conference on the state's evolving carbon standard ponders ways to quantify global warming effects.

April 19, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

While much of the world argues over whether biofuels made from corn are worsening world hunger, the debate in California is shifting to new state rules that could revolutionize the way fuels are judged.

A gathering this week in Sacramento offered a glimpse of a complex "poly-fuel" future that promised substantial environmental benefits as well as wrenching change for California's transportation systems.

The two-day conference was the first devoted to California's still-evolving Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, which calls for at least a 10% cut in the average carbon footprint of vehicle fuels by 2020, with 2006 as the baseline.

Regulators will attempt to take into account the total carbon cost, in global warming terms, that's embedded in the life cycle of gasoline, from its raw oil origins in a well, through the refining process, to the gas station, into cars and out the tailpipe. Newer and harder-to-quantify considerations, such as a fuel's direct and indirect effects on land use, will also be part of the ratings.

"Biofuels are being transformed into low-carbon fuels, and those are two very different things," said Rahul Iyer, a founder and executive vice president of Primafuel Inc., a Signal Hill-based company that is building a biodiesel plant at the Port of Sacramento.

"These could all possibly be low-carbon fuels," Iyer said as he scanned an exhibit floor dotted with tractors, buses, trucks and cars powered by compressed natural gas, propane, hydrogen fuel cells, diesel, electricity and hybrid-electric motors.

"They all get to compete on the merits of their life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions."

Transportation is responsible for nearly 40% of the state's current greenhouse gas emissions, and that makes the new fuel standard crucial to the state's overall goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Because the land use and other evolving concerns aren't fully understood, calculating the effects has become "a very tough issue," Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, told the 400 attendees at the low-carbon confab. But, she added, "this is the most ambitious effort to actually do a fair life- cycle analysis that's ever been undertaken. . . . We're very optimistic that it can be a success."

California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard is at the forefront of a worldwide shift toward evaluating fuels using such life-cycle calculations. Beginning in 2010, fuel will be given a carbon-intensity score that reflects the raw ingredients, how and where it was produced, how it got to market and how it was used.

Significant work remains before that can be done, oil industry executives said.

"I'm not sure this is a doable proposition, although many well-intentioned people believe it is," said John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Inc., the U.S. arm of the international oil giant. "I have no doubt that we'll get the science right. . . . but there is absolutely zero understanding of what it takes to go from alpha to beta to commercial-level production of the kind of volumes that are called for."

Even fuels designed to fight pollution and global warming have detractors. Over the last year, some experts have said the demand for corn-based ethanol changed planting patterns and boosted corn prices enough to worsen the worldwide hunger crisis that was triggered initially by poor crops, bad weather and the soaring cost of oil byproducts such as fertilizer.

"The rigor that's being applied to biofuels has never been applied to any other industry," said Iyer, whose company is developing technologies to lessen carbon emissions from current biofuels.


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