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August/September 2015

Driving Away from Petroleum: Can California Cut Use in Half?

By Leslie Stewart

In an attempt to slow climate change, California officials have proposed reducing petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50 percent by 2030. Governor Jerry Brown put forward this goal in his most recent inaugural address, in which he also set the same 15-year horizon on objectives for tapping renewables to fulfill 50 percent of California’s total energy needs, and for increasing energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent. This “50/50/50” strategy has a chance of becoming actual law if the state legislature passes Senate Bill 350 in the coming weeks.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) would be responsible for meeting the petroleum reduction part, extending the state agency’s work administering 2006’s Assembly Bill 32 and other climate change mandates. Regardless of SB 350’s passage, though, CARB will continue to focus on diminishing the impact of petroleum on both climate change and air quality.

The agency reports that the production, refinement, and use of petroleum accounts for nearly half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of smog-forming pollution, and over 95 percent of cancer-causing diesel particulate matter. “Petroleum dependence has a lot of consequences — air quality and climate change are two key drivers to move away from those,” said CARB Science and Technology Policy Advisor Ryan McCarthy in leading off a workshop at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Energy and Sustainability Summit 2015 on June 25.

McCarthy explained that current state policies would reduce vehicle petroleum use by approximately 20 percent by 2030. To achieve the proposed 50 percent reduction, existing CARB proposals would need to be accelerated, significantly reducing car travel with land use plans, “ratcheting down” vehicle greenhouse gas standards and extending them to 2030, increasing on-road fuel efficiency of cars to 35 miles per gallon and of heavy-duty vehicles to between 7 and 8 miles per gallon by 2030, and doubling the use of alternative fuels.

The land use planning aspect is covered under Senate Bill 375, California’s landmark climate change legislation from 2008. In compliance with this law, each of the state’s 18 regions has already completed a sustainability plan to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets set by CARB. Updated every four years, the plans rely heavily on reducing vehicle miles traveled.

This needn’t change the number of miles people travel, however, and it also doesn’t mean just expanding transit systems, according to Gil Friend, chief sustainability officer for the City of Palo Alto. At the summit workshop, he said that the basic goal should be to “make it more convenient for people to not drive alone, or not drive at all.” He pointed out, for example, that many large employers aren’t near transit, but can adopt a program which imposes parking fees on previously free parking, thereby funding shuttle buses to replace personal vehicles. This kind of program has saved Stanford University more than $100 million in infrastructure costs for parking.

Because some people will drive no matter what, reducing traffic congestion — another component of some regional and local climate action plans — is necessary to reduce petroleum use and attendant air pollution. For example, Santa Clara County has employed so-called “intelligent transportation systems” techniques to increase the efficiency of regional arterials through a traffic monitoring and control program. Intelligent transportation systems also include self-driving cars — and the vehicle-to-vehicle communication needed to make them work — which would reduce congestion by accident avoidance and smoother traffic flow.

“Autonomous cars may increase vehicle use,” Friend conceded, “but they will probably be electric because the entire fleet will be EV by 2030.” While such a rapid and comprehensive switch to electric vehicles seems unrealistic, the percentage of them on the road is certain to rise due to state and regional policies, including incentives. Bay Area regional agencies and stakeholders obtained planning grants a few years ago to scale up plug-in electric vehicle use. Now the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has approved allocation of $14 million in Transportation Fund for Clean Air grant funds for electric vehicle-related programs, including a grant program that aims to accelerate the deployment of publicly available charging stations and a rebate program to help public agencies purchase or lease new plug-in vehicles at a reduced cost.

The increased availability and variety of electric vehicles gives proponents further reason to expect a continued market shift. As workshop presenter Daniel Witt of Tesla Motors explained, “Everyone may want EV, maybe just not a subcompact car.” He declared that Tesla’s new SUV will win new converts, because “it will tow!”

Beyond personal auto use, cleaner heavy-duty vehicles will be critical both to reaching the 50 percent petroleum reduction goal and to meeting federal air quality standards. Federal rules require heavy-duty vehicles sold between 2014 and 2018 to reduce fuel use and carbon emissions up to 23 percent over 2010 use; the Environmental Protection Agency is now circulating a draft rule that would add up to 24 percent reductions by 2027. State requirements are even stricter. “We have to reduce formation of smog-forming chemicals by 90 percent in the next few years, especially in trucks,” McCarthy announced.

“It will be a real reach to make the goals,” responded fellow presenter John Boesel, president and CEO of CALSTART, a transportation technologies consortium. “There are a million heavy duty vehicles — trucks that are bigger than pickups, and buses — in California.” Trucks and buses are more specialized than cars, reducing the potential for economies of scale when improvements are developed and marketed, and they stay on the road longer before being replaced.

McCarthy said that agencies can do more to support the changes needed to make heavy-duty vehicles cleaner. “We need policies that cut conventional pollution and we need them fairly soon to get technology on the market.” CARB is preparing to meet the standards, conducting workshops and modeling leading up to a new State Implementation Plan in 2016.

The public sector has already been leading the way through innovations in transit buses powered by natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel, or renewable diesel technology — and these technologies can be adapted to trucks. The Air District is currently preparing solicitations scheduled to open later this fiscal year that will offer grants to operators of public and private sector fleets in the Bay Area in order to incentivize the adoption of zero- and partial-zero-emissions vehicles, including light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles, as well as urban buses. Boesel observed that funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program are now financing cleaner delivery trucks.

The program revenue to pay for those trucks, as well as many other greenhouse gas reduction measures, is coming in part from refineries, translating into higher gasoline costs for drivers. In a follow-up interview with the Monitor after the summit, McCarthy suggested that “cap-and-trade might be an incentive to car buyers to buy cleaner cars as the fuel price is increased by regulations.” This would reduce petroleum use, but also create a new market for refiners who can produce cleaner fuels.

However, the switch won’t be simple. For example, in a presentation to a recent CARB petroleum reduction forum, Corinne Drennan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory cautioned that using “renewable feedstocks” will take significant capital investment. Rather than leveraging existing facilities, refiners might need to build smaller modular ones. Easy or not, this strategy is on the table with all of the others being considered to meet the challenging 2030 target, and to improve air quality overall.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.

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