Federal Clean Fuel Plan Could Slash Transport Emissions

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A little known federal plan to adopt a clean fuel standard could cut Canada’s emissions by as much as Ontario’s coal phase-out (North America’s single largest emissions reduction initiative) — if done right.

The clean fuel standard, announced last November, will require fuel suppliers to decrease the carbon footprint of the fuels they sell in Canada.

But unlike similar regulations in British Columbia and California, which target transportation fuels only, the federal government is considering using the clean fuel standard to also target emissions from fuels used in buildings and industrial processes, such as heating oil and petroleum coke.

Gas, solids, liquids, whatever. If it is a fossil fuel, it is going to be subject to this standard,” Clare Demerse, policy advisor at Clean Energy Canada, told DeSmog Canada. “That is a really … powerful signal. All fossil fuels in Canada have to improve their carbon performance.”

However, it does make the policy more complex to design and a number of questions remain on how the federal government will craft a regulation with such a broad reach.

The federal government is proposing to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30-megatonnes by 2030, equivalent to 17.5 per cent of transportation emissions, via the clean fuel standard.

It has been shown in California and to some extent in B.C. and Oregon that a clean fuel standard or a low carbon fuel standard works really well at greening your overall fuel mix,” Warren Mabee, associate professor at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair in renewable energy development and implementation, said.

British Columbia’s low carbon fuel standard is responsible for one-quarter of emissions reductions in the province since 2007. California’s standard is estimated to have grown the use of clean fuels in the state by 36 per cent and made significant emissions reductions as well.

Despite advances in vehicle fuel efficiency and federal requirements for a small percentage of renewable content in gasoline and diesel, transportation emissions in Canada have remained steady at about 171 megatonnes for the last decade. In the meantime, freight emissions have grown an alarming 132 per cent since 1990.

Transportation is Canada’s second largest contributor to climate change.

A discussion paper on the clean fuel standard published last month by the federal department of Environment and Climate Change proposes making fuel suppliers reduce the carbon footprint of fuels by 10 to 15 per cent by 2030. If a fuel supplier cannot meet this target, the company can purchase credits from another supplier who has exceeded the threshold.

What is really going to make these standards work is if there’s multiple ways for companies to get to where they need to be,” Mabee told DeSmog Canada. “So you can reduce the carbon intensity of your fuel, you can reduce your facility emissions…you can buy credits, you can sell credits. There’s a bunch of different things that can happen inside the system.”

Maximum Flexibility for Fuel Suppliers

The federal government has promised “maximum flexibility” to help fuel suppliers comply with the clean fuel standard.

But Ian Thomson, president of Advanced Biofuels Canada, said maximum flexibility for petroleum fuel suppliers could mean minimum flexibility for low-carbon fuel suppliers like the biofuels industry.

The ones who really need lots of flexibility should be the low carbon fuel providers. Those are the folks who are facing a huge uphill battle,” Thomson told DeSmog Canada. “You’ve got David up against Goliath and you are telling Goliath he’s going to have maximum flexibility.”

On the flip side, Peter Boag, president of the Canadian Fuels Association, said reducing flexibility could make compliance with the clean fuel standard difficult for petroleum fuel suppliers.

The more you start to layer on those additional requirements beyond the overall objective of reducing the carbon intensity to some level, you are starting to constrain suppliers’ ability to comply and you also start to make compliance more costly,” Boag told DeSmog Canada.

The federal government’s decision to “not differentiate between crude oil types” in the clean fuel standard may also be a point of contention for some. Oilsands usually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, but fuels from these sources may be treated as having the same carbon footprint in the proposed regulation.

Is a National Zero Emissions Vehicles Standard Next?

Jonn Axsen, associate professor in the Faculty of Environment at Simon Fraser University, said transforming Canada’s transportation sector will likely take more than a clean fuel standard. Additional measures like a zero-emissions vehicle mandate will probably be needed.

The clean fuel standard just doesn’t send the right signal so that automakers are developing, innovating and creating the vehicle drivetrains. It’s a whole different process,” Axsen said. “It might not make sense for Canada to just have a low carbon fuel standard if it doesn’t have something very strong on the vehicles side as well.”

Developing “a Canada-wide strategy for zero-emission vehicles by 2018” is part of the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change, the federal government’s playbook on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Quebec adopted a zero emissions vehicle mandate last fall, whichit requires zero-emissions vehicles like electric cars to account for 15 per cent of all vehicle sales by 2025. California also has a zero emissions vehicle mandate.

Photo: Hakan Dahlstrom via Flickr