Low carbon fuel standard a plan for well-intentioned failure

semi truck on highway
Substituting low carbon fuels is not a straight trade. Although a gallon of low carbon fuel, such as biofuels made from processed plant or tree matter, can emit less than a gallon of higher carbon fossil fuel, the low carbon alternatives currently available are less efficient. Photo: Ktkt1234

All ideas are not equal; not by a long shot.

There are good ideas and bad.

There are also good ideas that create bad realities – unintended consequences that undermine the effectiveness of otherwise productive public policy.

And then there are ideas that are just plain bad – backward creations of awfulness – but which were conceived in a heady atmosphere of lofty and meritorious intention. Lawmakers soaked in the euphoria of these seductive proposals are driven to bring them to life despite their flaws and only as a way of demonstrating devotion to a larger cause.

The proposal to impose a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) on Washington state is a notion that most definitely falls into the latter class: the dreaded species of inspired but ill-considered proposals.

The goal of an LCFS is good: reduce the overall amount of carbon emitted by everything that burns fuel. By lowering the amount of carbon in our fuel we lower the carbon introduced into our atmosphere and help save the planet. High motives, indeed. However, to paraphrase another bad idea, the lyrical craftwork of 1990s rocker Phil Collins, something happens on the way to this low carbon heaven.

Carbon emission goals evaporate in the real world

Substituting low carbon fuels is not a straight trade. Although a gallon of low carbon fuel, such as biofuels made from processed plant or tree matter, can emit less than a gallon of higher carbon fossil fuel, the low carbon alternatives currently available are less efficient. Machines using low carbon fuels need to consume more to do the same work, gallon for gallon. For an individual driver, a reduction of mileage efficiency in a low carbon gallon doesn’t change the number of miles they need to get where they’re going. So, it seems reasonable to assume that some of the penciled-in reductions in overall emissions might dissipate or even disappear.

The greatest impacts of a mandated LCFS for Washington, however, could be felt in the increased demands on land use.

A new macroeconomic choice: biofuels or butter?

Consider the shift in land use that a new rush into agricultural marijuana has created, as well as the additional pressure on water and electricity. For some landowners, a booming market for legal marijuana presents a tempting option to repurpose acreage used for food, timber or other commodities. Why would we not expect a new market for crops used to feed a government-created demand for alternative fuels to similarly alter the land use dynamic?

The LCFS opens a door on a new economic choice. If enough landowners opt for crops that can be sold into a government-supported market for biofuels instead of growing food or wood, the resulting squeeze might spur price inflation for all agricultural goods. The fuel we use to get around, the food we eat to survive and the wood that is used to build most housing – the cost for all of these could be logically predicted to increase over time, if not immediately, as a hedge against the future.

As often happens with such schemes, these burdens on essential goods would be disproportionately shouldered by low-income families, all to comply with a low carbon standard that might only net a negligible reduction in overall carbon emissions.

California followed its bliss on LCFS and wound up in policy purgatory

And the kicker? We have solid evidence an LCFS will create these problems. California already tried trimming its carbon emissions this way. To say the results were uninspiring would be an understatement. Almost immediately, the fuel market reacted to the instability of a new system and gas prices were raised by an estimated 10 cents per gallon.

(If that was the effect of an LCFS in Washington and Gov. Inslee got his Christmas wish for a new carbon tax, it could mean a 40-cent increase on a gallon of gas. Washington drivers and businesses already pay one of the highest gas taxes in the nation.)

When California didn’t meet its carbon reduction goals, they hit pause on the whole idea like placing an errant child in time-out. If the Golden State decides to restart the program, it will contend with repairing gaps in its low carbon fuel infrastructure as well as the deviling economic choices around competing uses for scarce land and resources.

There’s no reason to think that Washington would avoid the potholes California found itself in. Those hazards aren’t bugs in an otherwise good idea; they are the logical consequences of a bad one.

We owe it to ourselves to quarantine the LCFS proposal – one of far too many poorly considered ideas careening through our body politic like damaging free radicals – until improvements in alternative fuel efficiency or economic conditions change to remove the obvious dangers of imposing the standard.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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