We've all seen the movie: Some small, seemingly unrelated actions lead to dire and unintended consequences. It happens in real life too, especially in government. The Low Carbon Fuel Standard, a regulatory program established under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was intended to reduce California carbon emissions, but it may come with some terrible unintended consequences.
The concept underpinning the standard is that most Californians would pay a little more at the pump if that guaranteed cleaner air. But what if the program also unwittingly supported the economy in places like Iraq, promoted clear-cutting of the Amazon rain forest, increased hunger in nations such as Haiti and Guatemala, and eliminated jobs in California? These are some of the unintended consequences if we don't change how the standard is implemented. The program, which took effect in 2011, requires a 10% reduction in "carbon intensity" in our fuel, taking into account emissions during the process, including extraction, refining, transportation and consumer use. The California Air Resources Board, charged with implementing the standard, assigns scores to oil from around the world because oil is not all the same. If oil from one region contains more sulfur, for example, it gets a lower score. The gasoline produced from it must be mixed with "cleaner" fuels to achieve a carbon reduction.
The air resources board attempts to include factors such as the environmental practices in the country of origin and the amount of emissions from shipping fuel here. But what it found was that because it needs more refining, oil from California and Canada scored worse than oil from faraway places like Saudi Arabia, even though our environmental laws are much stricter and shipping foreign oil and fuel to California takes a lot of oil and fuel.
If we import higher-scoring foreign oil, it would benefit nations such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia (and indirectly, producers like Iran), to the potential detriment of California's economy and energy independence.
The policy also requires California gasoline to be "improved" by adding ethanol. Alas, the highest-scoring and only cost-effective ethanol is sugar cane ethanol from Brazil. We would then have to ship Brazilian ethanol to California, using much fossil fuel. Environmentalists, including Jane Goodall, cite sugar cane production as the primary reason huge Brazilian corporations are clear-cutting pristine rain forest. We should not have to choose between clean air and massive deforestation.
The impact on the global food supply is even more startling. Scientists agree that our world cannot feed 7 billion people if we keep diverting food into our gas tanks. Scientific studies and media reports have credited shortsighted ethanol policies with causing starvation in places such as Haiti and Southeast Asia. The standard does not consider the effects of using so much cropland for fuel production, the rising cost of food, the diminishing supply or fossil fuel emissions from nations like Brazil, which now need to import more food.
And what of California's economy? I want to see a petroleum-free world, like many others. My wife and I own one car, a 45-mpg hybrid, and I bicycle everywhere I can. But as long as Californians are still using gas to fill their tanks and to heat their homes, they should have some of the jobs in that industry. There are more than 200,000 such jobs in Southern California. These are well-paying jobs, and driving them overseas doesn't make sense.
I don't want to throw out the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The policy is well intended. But we in the Legislature need to exercise our oversight authority and step in when a policy departs from the goals it is supposed to serve. For example, I plan to introduce legislation requiring the air resources board to consider how its policies affect things like deforestation and the global food supply.
We all want to see reduced emissions, but not at the cost of strengthening regressive nations, clear-cutting rain forests, starving poor people and laying off our neighbors. It's not too late to fix the fuel standard.
Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the California Assembly. http://www.asm.ca.gov/gatto