Fuel Tracking is Key to Good Climate Policy

, senior fuels engineer | August 3, 2015, 8:30 am EDT
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Fun fact: the fuels we use to fill up our gas tanks are changing. Well, maybe that fact isn’t fun, but it’s vitally important—because the trouble is, nobody knows how much or how quickly these changes are happening.  If we’re going to assess the climate impacts of the fuels we use and develop good policies, we absolutely need to be able to answer those questions.

Fuels have changed, they are changing, and they will continue to change

I typically use artificial sweetener in my coffee. I prefer the stuff in the yellow packet, but I often find myself substituting a pink for a yellow or blue for a pink depending on availability.  It’s tricky because I don’t want to over-sweeten my beverage. Without the colored packets, these sweeteners look the same to me, but adding the same size pinch of one or the other leads to very different levels of sweetness.

Just as some artificial sweeteners can pack a much greater punch per pinch, two different gallons of the same fuel can have very different levels of climate emissions.

In fact, the climate emissions associated with each gallon of gas cannot be determined by looking at the pump. Just as it matters which color packet the artificial sweetener comes from, where our fuels come from and how their oil feedstocks are extracted and processed is critical to identifying their climate impacts relative to other identical looking fuels.

The idea that mildly viscous oil can perpetually pour forth from the ground by itself, like it did for the Beverly Hill Billies, is absurd. Easily accessible oil is running out, requiring oil companies to look in new places, such as the arctic, look at new sources, such as tar sands, and necessitating their use of aggressive extraction technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing to wring oil out of the ground. Just as the sources of oil and their extraction methods are changing, so too are their associated climate emissions. These changes will continue; understanding them is necessary to appropriately contextualize the climate impacts associated with burning fossil fuels.

Tracking is needed to quantify the climate impacts of our fuels

Where our oil comes from and how much we get from each place changes all the time. Knowing the amount of fuel coming from Saudi Arabia, Alberta Canada, North Dakota, or any other place for that matter is important, because the relative climate impacts can vary widely as a result.

Emissions from the transportation sector are calculated by multiplying the amount of fuel used by the fuel’s carbon intensity. This calculated output is only valuable in quantifying climate emissions if both the amount of fuel used and the carbon intensity are accurate. Although we have very good data on fuel consumption, accurate estimates of our fuel’s carbon intensity are more elusive because the chain-of-custody data needed to follow oils from extraction, through refining, and to fuel distribution are not disclosed. Fuel tracking legislation would establish the disclosure requirements needed to characterize relevant parts of the fuel supply chain so that accurate carbon intensity estimates could be obtained.

In fact, we talk about a fuel’s “lifecycle emissions” – the sum of all of its associated emissions from “the well to the wheels” – because the real differences in emissions occur upstream of the gas pump, and are a result of where the oil is extracted, how it is extracted, what form it takes when it is extracted, and how it is refined into the fuels we purchase at the gas station. It is these lifecycle emissions that characterize the carbon intensity of our fuels, but this critical climate impact factor cannot be adequately estimated if we know nothing about the lifecycle of our fuels. Fuel tracking is the means to learn about the origins and ultimate climate impacts of our fuels.

Our fuels do not come with labels to indicate where they came from or what type of oil they were derived from. In fact, while the fuels we purchase at the pump appear the same, they are actually refined from a continuously fluctuating mixture of many types of oils that are extracted from all over the world and have widely varying lifecycle climate emissions.

Our fuels do not come with labels to indicate where they came from or what type of oil they were derived from. In fact, while the fuels we purchase at the pump appear the same, they are actually refined from a continuously fluctuating mixture of many types of oils that are extracted from all over the world and have widely varying lifecycle climate emissions.

Fuel tracking can be done and done cheaply – more jurisdictions should be doing it

Fuel tracking mechanisms are already being implemented by some jurisdictions, such as the European Union, British Columbia, California, and others as part of broader clean fuel policies. And similar chain-of-custody tracking is done for everything from milk to lumber and tea to diamonds in every major market around the world. Further, a recent study conducted for the EU found that fuel tracking was not only feasible, but minimally burdensome, easy to administer, and very cheap to implement.

Fuel tracking is a policy idea with broad applicability throughout the country and around the world. Our fuels have changed and will continue to change. Fuel tracking is needed to monitor changes to fuel carbon intensity and to follow the progress being made to reduce climate emissions in the transportation sector. This type of tracking is not unprecedented and it is both cheap and easy to do. The motivation to ensure progress is being made in reducing climate emissions is shared by all jurisdictions concerned with climate change; fuel tracking should be a key component of their climate policies.

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  • Bret Freudenthal

    Nice job!

  • Richard Solomon

    A good point I had never considered before. Thanks.