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]


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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Carbon taxes and the affordability of gasoline

Although new taxes can seem like a third rail in American politics, taxing carbon seems to be an approach that is slowly gaining ground in public discussions of ways to tackle global warming.

We recently explored what a carbon tax would mean for how U.S. consumers feel about the affordability of gasoline. It turns out that for over 90% of Americans, a $40 per ton carbon tax -- which translates to an extra 36 cents per gallon -- would still leave them a gasoline price range that they consider affordable.

Of course, consumers' views on the issue depend on their household incomes, with lower income households expressing a lower price threshold for "pain at the pump," so to speak.

Further details on these survey findings can be found in the article on "A carbon tax: how much would be too much?" at the University of Michigan Energy Survey website, where the full report is also posted.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A new and deeper wrinkle in the biofuel debate

Two short articles just published by the journal Climatic Change highlight the divide in scientific thinking about the effect of biofuels on CO2 emissions. A commentary by Robb De Kleine and colleagues at Ford Motor Company criticizes a paper on the topic published last year by myself and colleagues at the University of Michigan. My response to their commentary explains why I believe that our approach is correct, in contrast to the established lifecycle analysis method that our critics say is the best way to address the question.
Cropland adjoining patches of forest. All arable land
carbon from the atmosphere at varying rates. 

This quarrel reflects a new stage in the long-running debate because it does not involve disputes about net energy use or even the food-versus-fuel and land-use change issues raised over the past decade. It is instead a disagreement about the core assumptions to use when examining the question, particularly whether or not biofuels should be treated as inherently carbon neutral. That's the assumption that the CO2 emitted when biofuels are burned does not count because it is biogenic, i.e., newly removed from the atmosphere when feedstocks are grown. My work challenges this assumption, showing that it only holds under certain conditions. De Kleine and colleagues defend the assumption, arguing that it is true unconditionally.

The disagreement is not merely academic. Because new oil production technologies have expanded the supply of economically attractive fossil-based liquid fuels, the business case for biofuels rests increasingly on their value for mitigating CO2 emissions. The stakes are high for both the biofuels industry and for policies to address global warming.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Biofuel Research vs. Mandates: House Science Committee Hearing

John DeCicco speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where the Subcommittees on the Environment and on Energy held a joint hearing entitled "Examining Advancements in Biofuels: Balancing Federal Research and Market Innovationon Tuesday, July 25, 2017. What follows is the statement delivered at the hearing. 

I wish to thank the chairs, ranking members and other members of the Committee and Subcommittees for the opportunity to testify.
The question being addressed today, that of the right balance between fundamental scientific research and government intervention in the marketplace, is crucially important. The focus on biofuels is telling because it involves so many aspects of the question. Indeed, federal biofuels policy provides a morality tale of how things go wrong when the right balance is not maintained.
Before delving into the problems, however, I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining a robust federal investment in research across all fields of study. Funding for science is crucial to maintain American leadership and foster the innovation that leads to high-quality job growth. Federal support for university research is especially crucial for training a new generation of Americans who can fill those jobs. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Deceptive jobs rhetoric and auto regulation

Last week, President Trump worked long-time big-business lobbying scripts about "job-killing regulations" into his populist speech here in Michigan. The setting was the Willow Run facility in Ypsilanti and the props included a crowd of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors auto workers bussed in by the former Big Three to cheer for the Donald.

In reality, environmental regulations do not kill jobs. Read a rebuttal to the speech in my article on the "The ‘Job-Killing’ Fiction Behind Trump’s Retreat on Fuel Economy Standards" at Yale's e360 online magazine.