Thursday, November 15, 2018

Can the Trump administration pull off a clean car deal after all?

Regulations have long been a bone of contention between automakers and green groups, with policymakers caught in the middle. The disagreements have grown sharper than ever over the past two years, culminating in an August proposal from the Trump administration. That plan detailed a preferred option of freezing car and light truck Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards after 2020.

In response -- and they were indeed prepared for this worst-case scenario -- the State of California and its allies have girded for legal battle. They filled the docket with comments and extensive supporting analysis designed to fight the administration's crippled standards in court. On the other side, automakers -- who had prompted the administration to revise the regulations -- hailed the Trump agencies regulatory reform process even though they said it weakened the rules even more than they wanted. At that juncture, it seemed like years of litigation might be inevitable.

Nevertheless, a look at the formal comments filed reveals the makings of a compromise peeking through the otherwise disparate views. Recent news stories report that serious negotiations between California and the Trump administration seem to be underway. My recent Axios piece muses about how a compromise on car standards could be in sight.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pondering the future of the car with the planet in mind

Historical vehicles on display at General Motors Factory One (left to right): Flint Road Cart (1886),
Buick Model C (1905) and Chevrolet Classic Six (1913)
  [photo: Jason Robinson, courtesy of General Motors]
This year, the Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ) Annual Conference was held in Flint, Michigan. The city has been in the news recently because of its toxic, lead-contaminated tap water, a public health crisis brought on by negligence and indifference at all levels of government. Clean water was a major theme of the event, which included moving presentations by members of the community, activists and researchers involved in the crisis.

Historically, however, Flint is one of the cities that gave birth to the automobile. William Durant, a key co-founder of General Motors, and his partner Josiah Dort opened a factory for making horse-drawn carriages there in 1886. That building subsequently became an early factory for Durant's car company before falling into disuse in 1924. Five years ago, General Motors purchased the building and named it Factory One, turning the refurbished structure into a museum and event space.

This location served as a fitting venue for an evening plenary on the Future of Cars held on October 3, 2018, the first day of the SEJ conference. Moderated by Jim Motavalli, the panel included Michelle Krebs, a leading automotive analyst, Mike Ableson, a GM vice president involved in the company's electric vehicle efforts, and myself.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reconsidering bioenergy

Accelerated restoration in progress at the Malheur National Forest, Oregon  [photo: U.S. Forest Service] 

Protecting the Earth's climate takes on greater urgency every day. The vast majority of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other climate-wrecking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from the unmitigated use of fossil fuels. But that doesn't mean that every form of alternative energy is helpful for the planet. Case in point: bioenergy, such as liquid biofuels to replace oil or forest products to replace coal.

Indeed, using biomass for energy at large scales does not belong on the short list of actions to take for climate protection. This is the conclusion of a commentary by Bill Schlesinger and myself just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Given the real-world limitations of not only technology but also land-use governance, we argue that the priority policymakers have given to promoting bioenergy is profoundly misplaced.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

No justification for weaker CAFE standards

Interior view of the 2019 Ford F-150 Limited edition pickup truck. Such luxurious features in what were once utilitarian vehicles showcase automakers' impressive design and technology capabilities. The key policy question is how well these capabilities can be harnessed to improve fuel economy rather than offering ever more niceties at the expense of better protecting the environment. [photo: Ford Motor Company media] 

This week the administration is holding public hearings on their proposal to weaken Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards after 2020. What follows is the comment I prepared for the hearing being held today in Dearborn, Michigan. 

Comment on CAFE and GHG Standards Proposed Rule
for MY 2021-2026


John M. DeCicco, Ph.D.
University of Michigan Energy Institute*

Thank you for the opportunity to present this comment today.

Having reviewed the proposed rule, I find that it fails to scientifically or economically justify freezing the standards for model years 2021 through 2026. My assessments show that the greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards for those years remain sound.

My overarching conclusion is that there is no justification for changing the standards.

The one new development with any significance is that fuel prices are lower now than projected. However, this does not justify weakening the standards. Lower prices are all the more reason why fuel economy and emission standards should remain untouched.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The precarious state of fuel economy policy

Rated at 25 mpg, the Toyota RAV4 is a good example of the average new personal vehicle now being
sold in the United States, emitting 5.2 metric tons of CO2 per year over 15,000 miles of driving.
 
Any day now, the Trump Administration will formally propose its revisions to the coordinated program of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for cars and light trucks. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has determined that the existing standards, set in GHG terms by the previous administration for model years 2021-25, are too tough. Everyone expects that the proposal will weaken the regulations; the question is by how much.

As a long-time analyst of automotive fuel economy policy, over the past few weeks I've written several pieces providing perspectives on the issue as linked here.

Even though it's not a good reason to weaken the standards, automakers do have a valid concern about low consumer interest in ever-higher fuel economy. The tension between what consumers desire and the need to cut GHG emissions is a problem to take seriously and address creatively. This challenge is discussed in my recent piece "Why aren't automakers connecting better with green-minded consumers?" in Automotive News.

A broader look at the regulatory dispute is given the piece, "After Years of Green Promises, Automakers Renege on Emissions Standards," published last week by Yale Environment 360. Hooking to visionary-sounding statements by GM's chief executive, it highlights the contrast between the automaker's promise of technological solutions and the efforts to fight the policies needed to bring such solutions to fruition. That's an old story in the long-running debates about clean cars. However, with automakers now able to exploit the empowered political hostility to the environment that they (and some other industries) cultivated over the years, progress may soon grind to a halt. My comments echo those of others who point out California's crucial leverage on the issue.

A concise take on this very point is given by my Axios Expert Voices piece, "Automakers struggle to head off the California–EPA legal battle," published earlier last week.

A couple of months back, shortly after Administrator Pruitt issued his notice about the process to revisit the CAFE and GHG emissions standards, I argued that "Stronger fuel standards make sense, even when gas prices are low" in The Conversation (and also republished by Salon and other outlets).

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Breaking down biofuels analysis

Debates about the merits of biofuels have gone on for at least a generation. Over time, one might think that the accumulation of data would resolve key issues, especially those about biofuels and global warming. Nevertheless, the arguments not only persist but have become even more heated.

What has taken things to a new level of contention is that some researchers (myself included) are now rethinking the heart of the matter, namely, the belief that biofuels are inherently carbon neutral. This is the assumption that the CO2 emitted when biofuels are burned does not lead to a net increase in emissions because the carbon in the biofuel is recycled during feedstock growth. My new paper, "Methodological issues regarding biofuels and carbon uptake" published in the journal Sustainability, breaks this aspect of the debate down to its bare essentials.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Stronger fuel standards make sense, even when gas prices are low

The current Republican administration is taking steps to weaken EPA's greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for cars and light trucks. One of the stated reasons is that lower fuel prices make it more difficult for automakers to comply with the regulations. However, car companies are already well on the way to re-engineering their vehicles to cut emissions through higher fuel economy. Fuel prices are a fickle friend when it comes to the crucial long-term quest to cut climate-disrupting GHG emissions. So that's all the more reason to keep strong standards in place, as explained in this recent piece published on The Conversation. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Biofuels vs. Biodiversity and the Need to Think Beyond Carbon Neutral

Seminar given at the University of Michigan, Thursday, February 8, 2018, as part of the 2016-2018 "Beyond Carbon Neutral" seminar series.

Download the presentation slides [PDF]

ABSTRACT

Just over a decade ago, policymakers gave a big boost to biofuels through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and similar policies. These policies included sustainability provisions for protecting sensitive lands; the intent was to spur the production of advanced biofuels that would be sustainable in many ways including low CO2 emissions. Now, new studies appear each year revealing the destruction of diverse habitats as biofuel production amplifies the global demand for land. There have also been multiple bankruptcies of highly-subsidized advanced biofuel operations. What went wrong and how can we find a better path forward?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Carbon balance effects of biofuel expansion

The 4th biennial America's Grasslands Conference organized by the National Wildlife Federation was held in Fort Worth, Texas, on 14-16 November 2017. What follows is the narrative with key slides from my presentation in the session on "The Ethanol Mandate as a Driver of Land Conversion and Carbon Emissions." 

I imagine that you have often heard that ethanol and other biofuels are "clean and green" compared to ordinary gasoline. Even if not perfect, aren't biofuels better than petroleum because they recycle carbon from the atmosphere instead of getting it from under the ground? That makes them inherently carbon neutral, many people believe.

Unfortunately, that belief is quite misleading. Take, for instance, the claim that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 43% compared to gasoline, as given by a recent USDA study (which is critiqued here). That value is based on computer modeling and the assumption that biofuels fully recycle carbon is hard-coded into the model. However, when using field data to evaluate how much CO2 is actually recycled, it turns out that such modeling is off base, and not by just a small amount. In fact, biofuels fall so far short of being truly carbon neutral that they cause higher rather than lower CO2 emissions than petroleum fuels.