By John Han
May 22, 2009
The California Air Resources board shed some light Thursday on the “challenges, lessons, and opportunities” for creating California’s clean energy future. The event in San Francisco came just days after President Barack Obama proposed groundbreaking federal regulations requiring U.S. car manufacturers to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by the year 2016.
California’s AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, requires industries statewide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall by roughly 25 percent by the year 2020. The law requires the California Air Resources Board to come up with a plan that will meet that goal. Mary Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board, says that for too long, government agencies have often been divided, obstructing change. Now, it’s time to come together.
“We can’t move forward in addressing climate change as effectively as we’d like to unless we have a more unified plan and approach to meeting our state’s energy needs”, said Nichols. “We need to harmonize the roles of the PUC, and the Energy Commission, and the Air Resources Board so that they can serve the common goal of addressing climate change.”
Nichols highlighted some of the regulations so far adopted under AB32. One of them is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which will require the oil industry to reduce the carbon intensity of its fuel by 10 percent by the year 2020. According to Nichols, oil companies will be allowed to use electricity, instead of bio-fuels, as an alternative low-carbon transportation fuel in order to claim their pollution reductions mandated under AB32.
But although Nichols says a lack of unity between federal and state government agencies represents an obstacle to change, there is another significant factor preventing change: the industries themselves. Catherine Reheis-Boyd, executive vice president of the Western States Petroleum Association, says it is uncertain whether oil companies will be able to meet the Low Carbon Fuel Standard’s 10-percent reductions by the 2020 deadline.
She accuses the Air Resources Board of “forcing” industries to develop cleaner energy technology.
In an earlier interview, she said, “They put regulations out there that we’re not sure can actually be achieved. The challenge and problem with that is the fuels that are less carbon intensive are not developed yet and are not commercially available. So this regulation has a lot of uncertainty and risk associated with it.”
The oil industry is pushing for market-based solutions like cap-and-trade. That’s where companies that don’t meet their reduction requirements on time can purchase pollution credits from other businesses that are meeting them. Another proposal is a carbon tax, an environmental tax on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The Air Resources Board says market based solutions like these can work successfully and be regulated effectively. It has adopted a cap-and-trade policy into its AB32 scoping plan.
But critics say it’s just a way to allow polluters to pay to pollute without significantly reducing greenhouse gases. John Harte, Professor of Environmental Science at U.C. Berkeley, says market-based solutions are inadequate at best, and at worst, will contribute to worldwide environmental collapse. He says the time to move away from fossil fuels is now.
“We’re going to see sea levels rise by the end of this century that will bring about catastrophic damage to coastlines around the world”, Harte said.
He said that food shortages, droughts, disease, heat waves, and increased frequency of extreme events like Hurricane Katrina are likely to plague humanity if current energy trends continue.
“When you put it all together, the evidence is clear to scientists who have studied the problem. We cannot continue burning coal and oil for the next three, four, five, or six decades.”
Harte says an alternative to cap-and-trade solutions and carbon taxes is to redirect tax subsidies to businesses that produce renewable energy such as solar and wind, thus making clean energy cheaper and more desirable to the public.