Dr. Michael Shires on CA Air Resources Board Regulation of Carbon Content of Petroleum Fuels | New York Times | Pepperdine University | School of Public Policy

Dr. Michael Shires on CA Air Resources Board Regulation of Carbon Content of Petroleum Fuels | New York Times

September 25, 2015  | 3 min read

California Board Backs New Limits on Carbon From Gas and Diesel


LOS ANGELES — California air regulators on Friday approved a substantial cut to carbon pollution from gasoline and diesel fuels, a move that will force oil producers to reduce the amount of carbon generated by all transportation fuels in the state at least 10 percent by 2020.

The action, coming two weeks after a stinging defeat for Gov. Jerry Brown’s planned 50 percent cut in petroleum use by 2030, signaled his administration’s determination to press forward with an aggressive environmental agenda through the regulatory process rather than by legislation.

The rule approved Friday by the California Air Resources Board was originally adopted in 2009 but was fought tenaciously by oil and gas companies, which were able to use legal challenges to keep it partially on hold. Although the cut is smaller than the governor had wanted, state regulators are bullish that it can help halve petroleum consumption, even though the legislation setting that goal failed.

“This policy is at the very heart of that goal of a 50 percent reduction — even just doing what we’re doing now will get us pretty close,” said Daniel Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board.

Thus far, Oregon is the only other state with a carbon fuel standard like California’s. But Mr. Sperling said that as vehicle fuel efficiency rules also took effect and the policies combined to reduce oil use, he expected that other states would follow suit. “This is the best model in the world right now for how to reduce the carbon intensity of our fuels,” Mr. Sperling said. “It’s a model that I think we’re going to see more and more other places imitate.”

But any further efforts to push down petroleum consumption will run up against the same muscular opposition from the oil industry that was able to hand Mr. Brown one of his few big political defeats in recent years.

The change will hit consumers in the pocketbook: The state’s own projections estimate that fuel costs could rise 13 cents per gallon by 2020 as a result of the low-carbon standard.

The Western States Petroleum Association, which led the charge against the 50 percent reduction, argued that low-carbon fuel rules had not been a success so far. “While there have been some advances in the biofuels technology since the standard was introduced,” said the association’s president, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, in a written statement, “there are still not enough low-carbon biofuels available in sufficient quantities to allow refiners to comply with the regulations.”

But environmental groups pointed to advances in natural gas, biodiesel and the growing use of hybrid and electric cars in California as proof that the standard would not be difficult to meet. A spokesman for the Air Resources Board said on Friday that many oil producers were already hitting what the annual carbon reduction targets would have been, even though the targets were suspended during the legal proceedings. “We are on a path towards decarbonizing our transportation, and it’s not going to be stopped,” said Adrienne Alvord, the Western states director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ms. Alvord added that as far back as the 1960s, California had set the pace for environmental regulations that were eventually adopted by the rest of the country. The state was first to regulate tailpipe emissions and catalytic converters, and she said the low-carbon fuel standard would likely be another example. “In California, we have more cars than people,” Ms. Alvord said. “The opportunity here and the promise in terms of climate change is that if California can substantially lower transportation emissions, anyone can do it.”

There remains a political risk for Mr. Brown if he continues to try to push his climate agenda through the regulatory process. Michael Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, said that Mr. Brown lost in the Legislature on the 50 percent reduction because the oil industry was able to make the case to many regular Californians — including many Democrats — that the change would be too costly to consumers. The issue, Mr. Shires said, exposed a divide between the Democratic power base in the wealthy coastal areas and the lower-income voters of inland California, who are more affected by issues like rising gas prices.

Already, California faces some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation. Environmentalists argue that more fuel-efficient cars will mean that even if prices go up, it will not cost consumers more. But if prices go up too far — or officials are seen as overreaching — voters may be willing to use a ballot initiative to reign in the Air Resources Board’s power, Mr. Shires said. He pointed out that President Obama, who has also used the regulatory process to pursue a climate agenda thwarted by Congress, has not had to worry about such a possibility. “California has always been an environmentally progressive state,” Mr. Shires said. “The question is now, at what cost? Some of those prices are coming to roost.”