Fuel Tracking Makes Sense for Massachusetts

August 6, 2015 | 5:30 pm
David Babson
Former contributor

I have been traveling to Massachusetts a lot lately. I like Massachusetts, I attended college there, I met my wife there, her family still lives there, and I genuinely like Bay Staters. However, my recent travels have not been to visit old friends and family. Instead, I have been spending time in MA talking to its legislators about fuel tracking, a policy designed to monitor changes in the Commonwealth’s transportation fuel mix and the progress it may be making in reducing its climate emissions.

Tackling climate change in MA: More steps forward and no steps back

Perhaps one of the reasons I like MA so much is that its combination of tough minded, hardworking, well-educated, and progressive residents make it very entrepreneurial. This innovative spirit extends to both its business community and its political culture; so it is no surprise that MA is one of the leaders in dealing with climate change. In fact, MA established its Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) to create a framework for reducing climate emissions nearly seven years ago. To achieve the ambitious goal of 80% reductions in climate emissions by 2050, it requires reductions from all sectors of the economy, including the transportation sector. But the changing state of oil complicates these efforts because not having good data about the transportation fuels being used in MA makes it difficult to verify how much progress MA is really making toward achieving its climate goals.

When it comes to climate emissions from transportation fuels, tailpipe emissions from our vehicles are not the full story. Just as it matters whether our electricity comes from a coal burning power plant or a wind farm, it matters from which sources of oil we refine our fuels.

In 2008, the year MA began implementing the GWSA, North Dakota (ND) extracted fewer than 63 million barrels of oil from its Bakken shale. In the intervening years, as MA began tackling its climate emissions, oil extraction in ND’s Bakken ballooned 535% to nearly 400 million barrels in 2014. During the first two months of this year oil extraction was greater than that produced in all of 2008, and it is on track to top 400 million barrels by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, the lifecycle climate emissions from Bakken oil can be quite high, due to excessive flaring and venting of methane gas, and a growing share of this oil has been flowing to east coast refineries, whose resulting fuels have found their way into the MA fuel mix.

Thus, while MA has worked to reduce its climate emissions over the past 7 years, a critical climate impact factor – its fuel’s carbon intensity – has been changing under its feet without any notice. And I suspect that as a result of these changes, the carbon intensity of MA’s fuel mix is greater today than it was just seven years ago. Fuel tracking is needed to accurately estimate MA’s transportation sector climate emissions and to ensure it continues to take the needed steps towards achieving its climate goals.

Better data are needed to ensure MA is on-course to meet its climate goals

The fact of the matter is that changes to the MA fuel mix will continue. Perhaps more Bakken oil will contribute to the mix in the years to come, perhaps, as predicted, tar sands oil may begin entering MA in greater proportions, perhaps both will happen, or possibly neither. The point here is that the carbon intensity of MA transportation fuel is changing, and if we don’t ask the right questions, we certainly won’t get a complete accounting.

Climate emissions from the transportation sector are the single largest source of climate emissions in the Commonwealth, but a full climate accounting for these fuels cannot be quantified because the refineries from which the fuels are arriving in MA are not disclosed. Cutting fuel use is critically important, but if the fuels entering the state are getting dirtier, the hard won emissions reductions from reducing consumption could be being offset by the higher upstream emissions from dirtier fuels.

MA Climate Emissions by Sector

MA Climate Emissions and Business as Usual (BAU) Projections for Major Sectors – The difference between the emissions and BAU projections appear to indicate that progress is being made in reducing transportation sector climate emissions. However, emissions from this sector are calculated by multiplying the amount of fuel used by the fuel’s carbon intensity, and the carbon intensity of MA fuels cannot be adequately quantified without in-place tracking measures. Therefore, these data only tell us that MA is using less fuel; they do not tell us if the fuels MA is using are getting cleaner or dirtier. Overall emissions reductions from the transportation sector are not completely accounted for. Source: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (2014). Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

Luckily, MA is considering measures to track its transportation fuels and their associated climate emissions (H745 and S456). This would provide necessary information about the MA fuel mix, allowing progress under the GWSA to be monitored and better policies to be implemented going forward. Without such information it will be difficult to ensure that MA keeps moving forward and its climate emissions keep moving downward.

Opponents of fuel tracking in MA don’t dispute the need – they wrongly dispute its feasibility

On May 28th I attended a legislative committee hearing in MA where I offered testimony supporting tracking and reporting requirements for transportation fuels. More than a dozen individuals and organizations spoke in support of fuel tracking, but one set of testimony stood-out in opposition. This testimony was from the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute. They did not argue against the need for fuel tracking, or even try to refute that such tracking is required to more accurately estimate fuel carbon intensity; rather, they argued that the mandate would be impossible to fulfill. This is false, and this testimony intentionally attempted to over-complicate the fuel supply chain in order to distract from and blur how minimal the necessary burdens would be. In fact, fuel tracking is already included among broader clean fuel policies in the European Union, British Columbia, California, and elsewhere.

The carbon intensity of MA’s fuel mixture has changed and it will continue to do so. In order to ensure progress is being made to reduce transportation sector climate emissions, fuel tracking is needed. In keeping with its tendency to lead on climate issues, MA may become the first northeast state to adopt fuel tracking measures, but it would not be the last. Regardless of where we live, without fuel tracking, there is great uncertainty about how dirty our fuels actually are – and we have a right to know.