May 28, 2009

Dirty oil's direct land change impact

Photograph by Peter Essick for National Geographic magazine.

Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta's oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.

So intones an article in this month's issue of National Geographic magazine titled "The Canadian Oil Boom: Scraping Bottom." Its opening shot shows how arbitrary standards that attribute direct and indirect land use change factors can be when comparing fossil fuels vs. biofuels created from cultivated crops.

Corn and energy crops are being held to a high standard in new Low Carbon Fuel Standard legislation passing through California's legislature. This standard is reflected in U.S. EPA presentations which assign an arbitrarily high factor in assessing the indirect (aka "international") land change impact of producing the fuel (shown in bright green in the graph above). Without the assessment, even the worst case scenario for producing ethanol (dry mill using coal for heat) including the GHG tailpipe emissions passes the standard set by gasoline tailpipe emissions alone.

But there is no attribution for direct land use change from gasoline production even though this article provides clear evidence that there is for mining Canadian tar sands. This is the kind of arbitrary comparative accounting that has biofuel producers claiming that the standard that applies land use factors is, at best, artbitrary and, at worst, biased.

As a native Californian, I too think that CARB is being incredibly arbitrary on defining indirect effects. What if, in addition to indirect land use change (iLUC) CARB considered a new factor – “indirect cultural abuse change” (iCAC). If they did, the oil benchmark would be pushed up off the chart.

The argument would be that our addiction to oil wreaks cultural abuse worldwide – including military manufacturing and logistics expenditures, war damage to existing utility infrastructure, pollution from sabotaged wells during conflict, and the transfer of wealth from democracies to tyrannies – who exploit natural resources and have much less stringent environmental and workplace controls than most democraciees do. Surely these add carbon to the atmosphere (not to mention carnage, health, environmental, and human rights abuse).

Bottomline – until we deploy emerging technologies and a progressive infrastructure path to distribute alternative products we should build upon what already gives us options and makes us more self-reliant. Otherwise we have no choice at the pump and we remain pawns to those who profit from and control the status quo.

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