Saturday, October 13, 2012

Precedent Set: $5 a Gallon Gasoline Leads to Easing of Environmental Regulations for Refineries in California

On October 7, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown “directed the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to take emergency steps to increase the state's gasoline supply and bring down fuel prices.”

Below you will find three subsections. The first is further information on this decision. The second provides a little history on air quality management in the United States focusing on California. The third provides some relevant stats and graphs related to this topic:

I. Breaking Point Reached

Gasoline closing in on a record $5 a gallon prompted Governor Jerry Brown to direct California regulators to relax smog controls so oil refineries could increase supplies of cheaper fuel… [granting] refineries permission to make an early shift to winter-blend gasoline, typically not sold until after Oct. 31.”

Some have cited problems at refineries for the spike in fuel costs, some have put the blame on a short squeeze, some have suggested that policies and regulations that “insist refiners produce a specific blend of gas to meet tough state air quality standards” are the culprit, while others have been warning us for years of pending higher fuel costs due to peak oil.

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Speculation, however, as to the causes of the price spike are a moot point. What matters is the admission by our representatives in government that our current economic system cannot support high oil prices, and that the environment and our health will be sacrificed to keep the machine churning.

This decision by Governor Brown is significant on two levels. First, it shows the fragility of ’the recovery’ considering that refineries were granted permission to start to produce the dirtier gasoline just a few weeks before the normal annual automatic shift would have occurred anyway. Second, California has been the progressive state in air quality management, so much so that they have “special dispensation to promulgate more stringent vehicle emissions standards, and other states may choose to follow either the national or California standards.” If California is willing to sacrifice air quality to lower gasoline prices then it does not bode well for our future.

    “The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world's efforts are at slowing man-made global warming.

    “The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.”

We should be striving for something better than what our current economic system allows (pdf). As William McDonough put it, our ultimate goal should be “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, soil, water, and power -- economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed, period.”

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II. Smog and Air Quality Management

With increasing industrialization, air quality has become a major concern.

In the United States, deaths and illnesses caused by smog incidents - 1939 St. Louis event, 1943 Los Angeles smog ‘invasion’, Donora smog of 1948 - prompted local, state, and federal governments to conduct studies into the sources of air pollution. These studies, conducted in the 1950’s and 60’s, concluded that a significant portion of air pollution was due to the automobile.

California was the first state to respond to these findings, over the next few years implementing programs requiring devices to control emissions on motor vehicles. Devices such as: EGR Valve, Catalytic Converter, Air Pump, PCV Valve, and Charcoal Canisters.

By the early 1980’s, however, it had become clear that more regulation was required to reduce air pollution. As a result, in 1984 California began the first “Smog Check” program in the country, which at present is responsible for removing “400 tons of smog-forming pollutants from California’s air every day”.

Clearing California Skies

Over the next two decades California proved to be a pioneer in air quality management. They implemented multiple programs culminating with the Low Carbon Fuel Standard Program which was signed into law in 2007 by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Executive Order S-1-07 (pdf). A similar bill has failed to pass on a federal level. This was the first law of its kind in the world:

    ”[Requiring] oil refineries and distributors to ensure that the mix of fuel they sell in the Californian market meets the established declining targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measured in CO2-equivalent grams per unit of fuel energy sold for transport purposes.”

Low Carbon Fuel Standard

III. Some Stats and Graphs

The United States of America is by area the 4th largest country in the world, by population the 3rd largest at 315 million, has the highest GDP (PPP) at $15 trillion, contains 242 million registered vehicles (out of 1 billion world total) that consume 170 billion gallons of fuel annually (80% gasoline, 20% special fuels such as diesel) travelling approximately 3 trillion miles (67% urban, 33% rural). In addition, the United States accounts for approximately 22% of the world’s petroleum consumption (further information on general petroleum usage at: U.S. Energy Information Administration - EIA).

California is the 3rd largest state by area, the most populous at 38 million (12% of US), has the 8th largest economy in the world at 1.9 trillion (13% of US GDP), has 32 million registered vehicles (pdf) that consume approximately 18 billion gallons of fuel annually travelling approximately 324 billion miles (82% urban, 18% rural).

Some graphs obtained from Google Public Data follow:

Total U.S. Population

Total Number of Licensed Drivers in the U.S.

Total Number of Vehicles

Vehicle Miles Traveled

Total Gallons of Gasoline Attributed to Highway Use

Total Gallons of Diesel and Other Special Fuels (Kerosene, Natural Gas, Propane, etc) Attributed to Highway Use

Annual Vehicle Miles Traveled

Average Distance Traveled per Gallon of Fuel

Average Spent Annually on Gas per Automobile (Real Dollars)

Fuel Use per Vehicle

Automobiles per Licensed Driver

Vehicle Miles Traveled: Rural vs Urban

Vehicle Miles Traveled by State