How Oregon Can Fill Up On Clean Fuels

January 30, 2015 | 12:05 pm
Josh Goldman
Former Contributor

Something big is brewing in Oregon. No, it’s not a new IPA from Portland-based Bridgeport Brewery—though that sounds delightful. It’s the next phase of Oregon’s Clean Fuel Program, a forward-thinking regulation that requires transportation fuel to get steadily cleaner on average, ultimately achieving a 10 percent reduction in carbon emissions per unit of fuel in 10 years. Extending this rule is a big deal because approximately one-third of Oregon’s greenhouse gases come from transportation, and Oregon has the in-state resource potential to produce significant amounts of clean fuels.

What are clean fuels?

Everything is relative to some extent, so whether a fuel is “clean” depends on what you compare it to. Considering that oil has been the dominant transportation fuel shortly after the invention of the first gasoline-powered automobile over 100 years ago, we need to determine whether alternative fuels are clean by using gasoline or diesel fuel as the comparison.

In Oregon, some of the cleanest fuels come from: (1) electricity generated from hydroelectric dams and renewable sources like wind and solar that can be used to fuel electric vehicles (EVs), (2) low-carbon biofuels made from used cooking oil or residues from timber harvests that can be used in conventional cars and trucks, and (3) methane (natural gas) captured from landfills and wastewater treatment facilities that can replace fossil sources of natural gases used in busses and trucks.


Clean electricity in Oregon

Although battery electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF produce no tailpipe emissions (they don’t even have a tailpipe), there are emissions associated with the production of the power used to charge their batteries. The emissions performance of EVs therefore varies depending on the electricity mix of each regional grid. However, UCS has found that no matter where you plug an EV in across the country, it is still responsible for less global warming emissions that the average gasoline-powered vehicle.

Given Oregon’s relatively clean electricity grid, the environmental performance of EVs in the Beaver State is impressive. An average EV charged in Oregon produces the carbon emissions equivalent of a gasoline-powered vehicle that achieves 75 miles per gallon. Although Oregon already draws significantly on wind and hydroelectric power, Oregon’s electricity portfolio can get even cleaner. As the state ramps down coal-fired power plants and increases the use of renewable energy resources, the carbon pollution associated with driving an EV in Oregon will drop even lower. Moreover, EV rebates and other state policies can help encourage both EV sales and clean fuel production, helping dramatically reduce Oregon’s global warming emissions.



Clean biofuels in Oregon

Oregon has the potential to produce millions of gallons a year of low-carbon biodiesel made from used cooking oil, and companies like Sequential Biodiesel are already taking advantage of this local resource. Biodiesel produced from used cooking oil can cut global warming pollution by 75 percent relative to conventional diesel fuel, and can be added to conventional diesel to create a blend or used on its own. All of today’s diesel vehicles can use up to 5 percent biodiesel (“B5”) though many vehicles, especially trucks, are certified to use 20 percent biodiesel (“B20.”) Before using blends of biodiesel above B5, be sure to check with your vehicle manufacturer to determine whether your vehicle can use higher blends of biodiesel.

Oregon is also well suited to produce fast growing trees like hybrid poplar, which are among the fastest-growing trees in North America and an ideal source of sustainable biomass. Greenwood Resources has 7.5 million poplar and alder trees growing on a farm in Boardman, and is a partner in a $40 million project aimed at developing a process to make low carbon jet fuel from hybrid poplar. According the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon could produce more than 200 million gallons of fuel from this abundant local resource.

And lastly, renewable natural gas from landfills and wastewater treatment facilities can replace fossil sources of natural gas used in buses, trucks and other transportation applications, cutting the lifecycle emissions of these vehicles by more than half. Oregon landfills produce approximately 2.5 million tons of waste that could replace 75 million gallons of diesel fuel with a low carbon alternative.

Oregon’s Clean Fuel Program

Oregon has the resources to be a leader in clean transportation. But transitioning from oil to cleaner alternatives takes time and a stable policy that allows all fuel types – gasoline, advanced biofuels, electricity, natural gas, etc – to compete based on their emissions, costs and other factors. Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program encourages this exact type of competition and, when paired with similar policies in California and British Columbia, can create a regional market for clean fuels equivalent to the world’s fifth largest economy.

Though the Oregon Clean Fuel Program was enacted in 2009, the complete implementation of the program was delayed and this legislation will sunset at the end of 2015 unless the Oregon Legislature extends it.

That’s why UCS is working with local partners to extend the Clean Fuels Program, and can use your support. Sign up here to receive alerts on how you can make your voice heard, and be sure to subscribe to the Equation for updates on this program, and other vehicle-related state and federal policies.