ITS-Davis leads report outlining a national low carbon fuel standard


The UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, which helped California create the nation’s first low carbon fuel standard in 2009, has joined five other leading research institutions in releasing a series of studies designed to establish a national standard.

On July 19, 2012, in a bipartisan briefing in Washington, D.C., the researchers said that a national standard will ensure fuels of the future are cleaner, cheaper and “made in America.”

“A national low carbon fuel standard is a promising framework to help solve the transportation energy challenges that have eluded us for several decades,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. “Technologically, such a standard is very doable. And it can help us address the complex choices with conventional oil, shale gas, oil sands, biofuels, and electric vehicles.”

Joining the scientists at the briefing were representatives of the automobile, electric utility, and biofuels industries.

A low carbon fuel standard, designed to reduce the amount of carbon in transportation fuels, would require all energy companies to meet a common target for carbon intensity but leave it up to the companies to decide how to reach that goal. So, for example, an oil company might choose to diversify into electric or hydrogen fuels. It might add more low-carbon biofuels to its mix of offerings. Or it might buy credits from companies that specialize in low-carbon fuels, or that can lower the carbon intensity of their fuels more efficiently.

The peer-reviewed reports will be published in an upcoming special issue of the Energy Policy Journal, from science and health publisher Elsevier.

The reports were produced through the National LCFS Project — a UC Davis-led collaboration among researchers from six top U.S. institutions, each looking at a different aspect of how a low carbon fuel standard would affect America’s energy posture, national security, environment, and economy. The participating researchers are from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of California, the University of Illinois, the University of Maine, Carnegie Mellon University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“A low carbon fuel standard encourages innovation and diversity by harnessing market forces,” said participating researcher Jonathan Rubin, professor of economics at the University of Maine. “These reports provide practical policy recommendations, and are designed to inject scientific information into the national conversation on a low carbon fuel standard.”

Building on low carbon fuel standard policies already adopted in Europe, British Columbia, and California, the researchers looked at potential costs and benefits of reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 10 to 15 percent by 2030.

Researchers found a national low carbon fuel standard would:

  • buffer the economy against global oil price spikes,
  • trim demand for petroleum,
  • lessen upward pressure on gas prices,
  • create fresh opportunities for new fuels to compete in the marketplace,
  • save consumers money,
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and
  • boost energy security.

“Our current energy posture has left America’s economy exposed to global oil price shocks and high oil import costs,” said energy security expert Paul Leiby of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “A low carbon fuel standard would substitute domestic resources like ethanol, natural gas, and electricity for imported oil, providing energy security savings up to $22 a barrel.”

The researchers say deep reductions in emissions from transportation over the medium term and long term could come from wider adoption of plug-in electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen. Fuels from waste materials—from agricultural and forestry leftovers to municipal waste—are another important source of low-carbon fuel.

“A national low carbon fuel standard creates a strong market signal that attracts investment and spurs innovation in clean fuel technologies, increases consumption of clean fuels and lowers average consumer fuel prices, for a total savings of $411 billion by 2035 on fuel expenditures as compared to business as usual,” said Madhu Khanna, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.

The researchers found a national low carbon fuel standard would encourage farmers to grow crops that are especially suitable for conversion to fuel, rather than selling food crops into the biofuels market. That would ease pressure on food prices while giving farmers profitable options for degraded cropland.

“We have a big challenge that cannot be solved overnight, but these recommendations provide a framework for moving America toward a more sustainable transportation system. We look forward to spurring a national dialogue,” said Sonia Yeh of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and co-chair of the National LCFS Project.


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