Bringing science back to the Keystone Pipeline decision

Sure, you might get a Keystone Pipeline. But only if the developers can ensure carbon reductions overall.

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I say bring in a national fuel standard, modeled on those being implemented in Europe, British Columbia, and California. Give energy companies a target, and let them figure out how to meet it. Take these decisions out of the political realm, and put them on a rational, science-based platform, instead.

Take California’s low carbon fuel standard. Energy companies know they have to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels by 10 percent by 2020. But the details—the “how”—that’s up to them. If a company can’t figure out a way to meet the goal, it can buy credits from another company that beats it.

If this policy were national, oil companies might decide, for example, that the Keystone Pipeline—which would tap a vast field of dirtier, more carbon-intense fuel—is still worth doing, but they would have to reduce carbon emissions overall in some other way. And if turns out to be impossible, the Keystone project would have to be dropped.

In my role as a member of California’s Air Resources Board — which is implementing the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) — I have been told by many energy company executives that California’s LCFS has already changed how they evaluate new investments. Now when considering any project, they analyze its carbon footprint, generally pursue low-cost ways of reducing emissions (and energy losses), and examine the possibility of options such as carbon capture and sequestion.

And they are not alone. As Japan, the European Union, South Korea, Australia — even China — all are working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through clean fuel standards. This is the way the world is going.

A U.S. low carbon fuel standard would allow companies to buy credits from others able or willing to reduce emissions at lower cost, thereby harnessing market forces and creating a market for clean fuels. It would allow for flexibility, leaving it to energy companies to figure out the most efficient approaches to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And it would stimulate innovation in low-carbon fuels, which would help our environment and our economy.

Environmentalists would end up having to swallow some bitter pills. The Keystone Pipeline might go forward, in exchange for dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. But in exchange, we would get a tool for transforming our nation’s energy posture.

I am part of a team readying a proposal for a national fuel standard, due for release this summer. We hope it will spur serious conversation about a national low carbon fuel standard.

By bringing science and standards to our nation’s energy decisions, a national clean fuel standard would give us a tool for taking carbon considerations mainstream. No interested parties will get everything they want. But a national standard would put us on the path to a more sensible, more sustainable, more rational energy future.


Sperling is a member of the California Air Resources Board and founder of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies