Monday, January 7, 2013

LCFS: some early history of the concept

The idea of regulating transportation fuels through lifecycle analysis (LCA) has now become widely accepted; it is the basis for California's low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) as well as provisions of the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and other policies. Although my recent work criticizes the use of LCA to define policy, this disapproval reflects a major change of perspective from 15-20 years ago. Back then I was among the first to propose that LCA -- or "full fuel cycle" (FFC) analysis as we termed it -- would be a great way to regulate motor fuels in terms of GHG emissions. 

The notion originally arose during what was known colloquially as "Car Talk" (no relation to Click and Clack's popular radio show). Convened in 1994, Car Talk was a presidential advisory commission tasked with recommending policies to address GHG emissions from cars and light trucks. The commission failed to reach consensus and so never issued an official report, but its deliberations were documented by the National Economic Council (NEC 1996). 

During the Car Talk fact-finding process, Mark DeLuchi presented his studies of various alternative fuel options (as published in DeLuchi 1993, for example). The full-fuel-cycle analysis method he had developed impressed many members of the commission including this author. We believed that LCA would provide a way to treat all fuels consistently, enabling performance-based, technology-neutral policy to be defined. 

The first peer-reviewed publication to propose the use of LCA for fuels policy appeared as a book chapter by DeCicco & Lynd (1997). It stated that: 

Motor fuels have long been subject to composition standards, from privately developed quality standards to environmentally motivated standards such as the phase-out of lead and more recent reformulation standards addressing volatility, oxygenation and lower sulfur content. This approach can be extended to standards specifying a maximum full-fuel-cycle GHG factor (for example, grams of carbon-equivalent per joule of energy content), which could be implemented as an average cap on the national motor fuel pool.
-- DeCicco & Lynd (1997), p. 103 

Fuel subsidies similarly structured using a full-fuel-cycle metric were discussed during Car Talk and recommended in an unofficial report issued by a majority of the committee (including this author). That proposal was recounted as: 

Subsidies proportional to a fuel's full-cycle GHG emissions factor, based on plant-by-plant auditing, available to all liquid and gaseous fuels; the subsidies (which could be either direct payments or tax waivers) would be capped at $180 per metric tonne of carbon equivalent compared to gasoline.  …  Subsidies would need to discriminate fuel deliveries according to their "pedigree" with respect to full-fuel-cycle GHG emissions.
-- DeCicco & Lynd (1997) p. 102

Although there was no opportunity for such ideas to get serious policy consideration at the time, numerous fuel LCA studies were subsequently published. Moreover, the idea of analyzing products according to their "carbon footprint" proved attractive in many other arenas. In spite of the fact that the modeling involved can be extremely complex, the notion of carbon footprint has become quite popular. 

In energy policy discussions, this lifecycle metric is often known as a fuel's carbon intensity (sometimes called "carbon content"). It proved easy to communicate to well-meaning policymakers and became the basis for the LCFS and RFS now in place. 


DeCicco, J.M. 2012. Biofuels and carbon management. Climatic Change 111(3): 627-640.

DeCicco, J., and L. Lynd. 1997. Combining Vehicle Efficiency and Renewable Biofuels to Reduce Light Vehicle Oil Use and CO2 Emissions. Chapter 4 in J. DeCicco and M. Delucchi (eds.), Transportation, Energy, and the Environment: How Far Can Technology Take Us? Washington, DC: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. [PDF]

DeLuchi, M.A. 1993. Greenhouse gas emissions from the use of new fuels for transportation and electricity. Transportation Research 27A(3): 187-191. 

NEC. 1996. Interagency Report to the President on the Policy Dialog Advisory Committee to Recommend Options for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Personal Motor Vehicles. Washington, DC: National Economic Council, October.  

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