Commentary: New York must adopt technology-neutral fuel standard

Source: By Tristan R. Brown, Times Union • Posted: Monday, February 17, 2020

Last year, New York passed into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, and it immediately became the country’s most ambitious climate policy. The CLCPA requires New York’s overall economy to be net-zero carbon by 2050.

The state’s transportation sector, which currently is responsible for 46 percent of its total energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, must undergo rapid and comprehensive decarbonization on an unprecedented scale. If New York is to successfully reach this target, then it is imperative that we adopt a technology-neutral Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

New York’s policymakers have two broad options for reducing the transportation sector’s emissions. The first is to identify and mandate the use of specific technologies to achieve the required greenhouse gas emission reductions. The second is to establish a Low Carbon Fuel Standard by which policymakers establish emission reduction targets, but the market determines which technologies (or combinations of technologies) can most cost-effectively contribute to the targets.

The experiences of other major economies teach us that this second option will give New York the best shot at achieving the CLCPA’s targets. The physicist Niels Bohr summarized the reason for this when he said that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” The rapid pace of technological change makes it very likely that our current assumptions about the state of energy in 2030, let alone 2050, will often be incorrect. Technologies that we expect to be widespread in 2030 may not be, while other technologies that we are currently unaware of may be prevalent. Relying on the former to the exclusion of the latter will place the CLCPA at risk of costing New Yorkers more than would be required to meet its decarbonization target.

Two recent examples illustrate this risk. In 2010 the U.S. government began requiring oil refiners to blend growing volumes of low carbon fuels made from agricultural and forest residues with gasoline and diesel fuel. Production of these “cellulosic biofuels” has failed to reach anything close to the scale required by Congress. Since other forms of low carbon fuels cannot contribute to the cellulosic biofuel mandate, the law has fallen far short of the federal government’s decarbonization targets as a result.

California has implemented its own requirement that low carbon fuels be consumed in place of petroleum fuels. In 2009 California predicted that electric vehicles and cellulosic biofuels would be the primary sources of emission reductions. Unlike the federal law, though, California’s law is technology-neutral and enables the market to determine which qualifying fuels participate. California’s assumed electric vehicle and cellulosic biofuels volumes have fallen short of its earlier expectations, yet the state’s law has been successful due to the unexpected contributions of other low carbon fuels such as biodiesel, renewable diesel, and renewable natural gas.

If New York is to successfully decarbonize its largest source of emissions, the state’s policymakers need to implement a technology-neutral standard that, like California’s, requires the steady reduction of the transportation’s sector’s emissions through the use of low carbon fuels. Unlike the federal government’s different standard, though, New York’s standard should allow any technology that safely delivers certifiable greenhouse gas emission reductions to contribute. Such a standard would spare New York’s policymakers the impossible burden of accurately predicting the distant future while simultaneously empowering the development of those technologies and workforces that are most capable of achieving the required emission reductions.

Tristan R. Brown is an associate professor of energy resource economics at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. Also contributing to this article were Robert Malmsheimer, professor of forest policy and law, and Timothy Volk, senior research associate at the college.