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California adopts low carbon fuel standard that could penalize corn-based ethanol

Agriculture.com Staff 04/24/2009 @ 7:07am

By a vote of nine to one the California Air Resources Board Thursday evening approved a low carbon fuel standard that gives gasoline a slight edge over Midwestern corn-based ethanol as the state tries to move away from petroleum. Other sources of power for vehicles, including electricity and natural gas, would have an immediate advantage over gasoline or ethanol, under the way the standard measures the potential effect of fuels on global warming.

John Telles, a medical doctor who represents the San Joaquin Valley, was the lone dissenter. He said that with some cities in California's Central Valley suffering 42% unemployment, he was concerned about the uncertain economic impact of changes in fuel use. The Board's staff anticipates no major economic effects but Telles wondered what would happen if food and fuel costs went up. "No place in the document does it say what we would do if that were to occur," he said.

He said he was also concerned about the reliability of computer modeling that showed indirect land use triggered by corn ethanol adding 30 points to corn ethanol's carbon footprint, bringing it to 99.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for every megajoule, a measure of energy, in the fuel.

He said that he had telephoned some members of a group of 125 scientists who questioned the validity of the indirect land use calculations. "That's why the European community has not proceeded in this," he said.

Other board members said they, too, were concerned about the accuracy, but decided to support the low carbon fuel standard after agreeing to move up a review of the science behind it from January 1, 2012 to a year earlier, January 1, 2011. That's the same year that the rules for the low carbon fuel standard are set to begin.

Other board members were pleased with the standard’s approval.

Daniel Sperling said that coming up with the same way of measuring carbon output in all fuels, using grams of carbon dioxide equivalent for each megajoule of energy in the fuel, was a major achievement by the board's staff. And no one questioned it, he said.

"All of the arguments we've been going through here are really the details of how to get those numbers right," he said.

"This, in my mind is an example of government at its best, doing good policy," Sperling asserted.

Even before Thursday's public hearing and vote, the board took steps to address some of the ethanol industry's concerns. In an April 22 letter to Growth Energy co-chairman, General Wesley Clark, board chairman Mary Nichols said that individual ethanol producers will be allowed to show how they're making the fuel with less carbon output.

"The LCFS as written allows for all fuel producers to certify their specific pathway including a demonstration of innovative agricultural practices that can reduce their life cycle emissions, including their impact on land use change," Nichols wrote.

By a vote of nine to one the California Air Resources Board Thursday evening approved a low carbon fuel standard that gives gasoline a slight edge over Midwestern corn-based ethanol as the state tries to move away from petroleum. Other sources of power for vehicles, including electricity and natural gas, would have an immediate advantage over gasoline or ethanol, under the way the standard measures the potential effect of fuels on global warming.

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