BC's 'Cleaner' Fuel Standard: Reality Check

How a law supposed to require low carbon gasoline and diesel spares the oil sands at the atmosphere's expense.

By Geoff Dembicki 13 Dec 2011 |

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate issues for The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society. This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. Funding for this series was provided by the Bullitt Foundation and Hospital Employees' Union. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. To republish articles from this series, please contact TSS editor Chris Wood here.

In late September this year, a who's who of climate policy experts, industry reps and provincial bureaucrats gathered at the swanky Delta Ocean Pointe Hotel on Victoria's inner harbour, just across the water from B.C.'s legislature buildings.

The purpose of their two-day retreat -- which went unreported by all Canadian media, including The Tyee -- was to evaluate the province's low carbon fuel standard, a policy that has positioned B.C. in the global vanguard of climate change action.

In theory the standard will make all gasoline and diesel sold in the province better for the climate and help us transition to a clean energy economy.

Yet the mood at the Pollution Probe-hosted conference, which drew the majority of its participants from the oil and gas industry, was far from celebratory.

"Industry was challenging the fuel standard, saying it's unworkable," Alison Bailie, a Pembina Institute policy advisor who attended told The Tyee.

Perhaps more surprising is that Bailie herself, and other prominent green groups, are also reluctant to support the initiative.

With the legislation set to go into effect next year, they see major design flaws that could render its clean energy goals unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve.

Those flaws, they argue, give big handouts to Alberta's oil sands industry and entrench B.C.'s addiction to some of the world's most polluting fuel.

"It's hard to have a position on B.C.'s low carbon fuel standard," Bailie said. "We can say we're supportive of the objectives, but the way it's implemented can have a profound impact on whether it does lead to greenhouse gas reductions."

Schwarzenegger gives high praise

In 2007, B.C. became the second jurisdiction in the world after California to adopt a low carbon fuel standard, and optimism couldn't have been higher.

"With your willingness to be innovative in clean technology, you are poised to start British Columbia's new gold rush," then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared at a Vancouver economic summit that year.

The goal of B.C.'s fuel standard, modeled after similar Sunshine State legislation, remains unchanged after four years. It strives by 2020 to make all gasoline and diesel sold in the province 10 per cent less damaging to the climate than it was in 2010.

Not only that, say its proponents, but the policy would also provide powerful incentives to adopt cleaner, more renewable fuel sources, creating a veritable "gold rush" of new technology and investment.

The fuel standard is based on a fairly straightforward premise.

If global warming is ever to get solved, it will mean drastic cuts in emissions from transportation, a sector responsible for 36 per cent of all greenhouse gases released in B.C. in 2008.

One obvious way to reduce them is by making people drive less‚ an objective of B.C.'s carbon tax, which increased the price of gasoline and diesel.

That only addresses part of the problem though. Many of the emissions associated with road fuels are released (think crude-oil upgraders, refineries etc.) before those products ever get into a gas tank.

There's no single way to reduce these so-called "upstream" emissions.

Still, by setting a clear reductions target for the final product at the pump, and imposing fines for non-compliance, you not only force the transportation fuel industry to come up with solutions, but give it every incentive to speed the shift to renewables.

Of course it's one thing to talk about a "gold rush", and quite another to actually make it happen.

Anatomy of a carbon policy

In order to understand why B.C.'s low carbon fuel standard could potentially do more harm to the climate than good, you must first get a sense of how the government designed it.

The initial step in any climate policy is to establish some sort of "baseline," a starting value that all carbon reductions are measured against.

Think of it like an obese person recording his or her weight before enrolling in boot camp.

Under B.C.'s fuel standard, bureaucrats in the ministry of energy and mines have calculated that baseline to be 82.40 g/MJ for the year 2010.

What that means, is that for every unit of energy (a mega-joule) created by gasoline, diesel and biofuels that year, an average of 82.40 grams of carbon was released.

That number must go down to 73.82 by 2020, meaning that on average, every litre of road fuel pumped into cars and trucks will be about nine to 10 per cent less damaging to the climate.

It's sort of like acknowledging that every excess calorie a person consumes creates body fat -- then declaring that in order to reduce overall obesity in the population, restaurants must start serving lower-calorie meals.

Forcing B.C.'s fuel suppliers to provide road fuel that's 10 per cent cleaner by 2020 may sound straightforward enough.

But the math that the provincial government relies upon could mean the difference between a carbon policy that succeeds and one that fails.

Let's return to that original "baseline" number, the 82.40 g/MJ value for 2010 that all carbon reductions are measured against.

Calculating that number meant the B.C. government had to do three things: figure out exactly how much gasoline, diesel and biofuels were being sold in the province; measure how bad each is for the climate; and then do some fancy math to create an average.

The first and third parts are easy, while the second relies on a complex science with virtually no historical precedent.

Road fuel vs. the climate

Most people fill up their gas tanks with little regard for the fuel they're pumping, where it came from, or how it was made.

These factors, though, are precisely what make one kind of fuel worse for the climate than another.

To understand why, consider the case of gasoline, by far the most commonly pumped road fuel in B.C.

Broadly speaking, drivers across the province are filling up with two types of gasoline. There is gasoline made from conventional oil, and gasoline made from oil sands. (The same holds true for diesel).

Spend a week powering your car with each type, and the emissions coming out of your tailpipe will be virtually identical.

So to truly figure out which is better for the climate, you'd have to track how each type of gasoline was produced, determining, in the parlance of carbon policy, its "lifecycle emissions".

That's exactly what Stanford University researcher Adam Brandt did in a recent European Commission report.

And based on the huge amounts of energy needed to extract and refine oil sands crude, he concluded that this energy source is 23 per cent worse for the climate than conventional oil.

Which brings us back to that 82.40 value created by the B.C. government, the one which shows how much carbon was emitted for each unit of road fuel energy in 2010.

As part of the complicated math needed to create that number, policy makers needed to somehow account for the differences between the two types of gasoline described above, oil sands and conventional.

They did this by essentially averaging each fuel's carbon footprint, among others, in order to create a single value. (It would be like calculating an average calorie count for say, all the pizza served in B.C.)

Hence all gasoline sold across the province, whether oil sands or conventional, is considered by the B.C. government to have a carbon intensity of 90.21 g/MJ. (Diesel got the same treatment too, resulting in a slightly higher 93.33 g/MJ).

So why does all this technical mumbo jumbo matter?


According to Stats Canada, a total of 4,398,401,200 litres of gasoline was purchased across B.C. in 2007. The Tyee Solutions Society assumed that half of that amount, 2,199,200,600 litres, was produced from oil sands crude. Since the B.C. government considers each litre of gasoline to contain 34.69 mega-joules (MJ) of energy, sales of this oil sands gasoline were equivalent to 76,290,268,814 mega-joules of energy.

Each mega-joule of oil sands fuel energy releases roughly 107.3 grams of carbon, according to Stanford University's Adam Brandt. So all that oil sands fuel put roughly 8,185,945,840,000 grams of carbon into the atmosphere. Under the fuel standard, that oil sands fuel is considered to have a carbon intensity of 90.21 g/MJ, resulting instead in a figure of 6,882,145,150,000 grams of carbon released.

The difference between the two estimations‚1,303,800,690,000 grams or 1,303,800,690 kilograms‚isn't being accounted for in the low carbon fuel standard. Plug that number into the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, and it's shown to be equivalent to the annual emissions of 255,647 passenger vehicles.-- G.D.

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