Photo: Alaska Airlines

Washington State Tackles Transportation Emissions

, Senior scientist | March 7, 2019, 11:00 am EDT
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The climate crisis demands an immediate response on multiple fronts, and while in Washington DC the Trump administration is attempting to reverse the progress of the last administration, in Washington state legislators are tackling the challenge head on.

The largest source of pollution in Washington state is transportation, which is another way to say burning petroleum-based fuels like gasoline and diesel. Tackling emissions from transportation requires policies that focus on vehicles and transportation fuels. Broad economy-wide measures like carbon pricing or cap and trade are important and should be pursued but will have limited direct impact on transportation in the near term. Fortunately, a clean fuel program, which targets transportation fuel directly, has proven quite effective. Legislators in Washington are considering enacting such a standard, which would be a major step forward in cutting oil use and emissions from transportation.

Clean fuels policies cut oil use and emissions

California, Oregon and British Columbia each have a clean fuel standard in place. These are technology neutral performance standards that require average transportation fuels to get cleaner over time. They don’t mandate the use of any specific clean fuel but instead provide support for all clean fuels based on a scientific assessment of the benefits they provide compared to burning gasoline and diesel fuel.

The measure of a clean fuel adds up the global warming pollution associated with the full lifecycle of the fuel, from fuel production to combustion. This approach is flexible, and allows for the goals to be met in several ways: by blending cleaner biofuels into the gasoline and diesel used by the existing fleet of cars and trucks,  substituting fossil fuels with drop-in renewable fuels (such as renewable diesel, renewable natural gas, or renewable jet fuel), or by using more clean fuels like electricity and hydrogen. The lifecycle assessment for each fuel recognizes that producing transportation fuels can also be very polluting, so emissions from using fuels is combined with emissions from oil fields, tar sands, oil refineries, not to mention the production of crops for biofuels or power for electricity generation. See our fact sheet and analysis on clean fuel availability for more details.

Experience shows clean fuels policies work

California’s clean fuel policy, called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, was enacted nearly a decade ago, and with a track record of success it was recently extended to reduce the carbon intensity of the state’s fuel supply by 20 percent by 2030. The policy has significantly increased use of clean alternative fuels in the state and has encouraged producers of clean fuels to reduce emissions associated with their production.

For example, the policy does not just simply encourage the use of alternative such as biodiesel and natural gas; it encourages fuel producers to use the lowest carbon sources of these alternative fuels, which means biodiesel, made from used cooking oil or biomethane captured from wastes. Clean fuels policy also provides a substantial support for electrification of vehicles. By switching from diesel to electricity, transit agencies can generate credits worth more than $10,000 per year for each bus, and clean fuel credits can be used to fund rebate programs for electric vehicles. A program under development in California is expected to provide rebates worth up to $2,000 per EV.

The cost of climate inaction is high and rising

The oil industry and other critics of clean fuel policies claim they will increase the cost of gasoline or diesel. But by focusing attention on the small cost of making smart investments to move steadily away from petroleum-based fuels, they distract from the real risks to consumers and the public. Cleaner transportation choices like electricity not only are produced in state but have lower and more stable prices than oil.  The real risk to consumers comes from the inherent instability of global oil markets and the Trump administration’s efforts, aided by the oil industry, to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards. And the cost of inaction in the face of the climate crisis is much higher still. Beware of the oil industry’s self-serving claims to be protecting the pocketbooks of drivers when they are really protecting their own monopoly on the transportation fuel marketplace at the expense of future generations.

Washington lawmakers should join their neighbors on the west coast by enacting a clean fuels program of their own.  The cost of inaction is just too high to neglect the largest source of pollution in the state, and the benefits of accelerating the transition to electricity and other clean fuels is too great to ignore.  Together with other policies to promote renewable energy and more efficient buildings, a clean fuels policy is a critical tool for Washington to address the climate crisis.

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