February 26, 2016 Categories: California Fossil Fuels Low-Carbon Fuel

An Increasingly-Less-Necessary-Evil: Halving Oil Consumption Is Within Our Reach

When California Governor Jerry Brown called for a 50% reduction in petroleum consumption by 2030 during his 2015 inaugural address, it sounded like an audacious target. Petroleum exerts a near-complete dominance over our transportation sector and Californians, like most Americans, depend on our cars on a daily basis. Luckily, recent technological developments, coupled with the state’s policy leadership, have given us a way to un-shackle our mobility from petroleum.

Recent research by ICF International for the Union of Concerned Scientists has demonstrated that a 50% cut in petroleum consumption is not only achievable, but it’s within the reach of the technologies and policies already in widespread use today. Cutting California’s petroleum consumption in half is less of a moon shot than it is the building of a better mousetrap; as long as we keep driving progress forward, the goal is within our reach.

First, the Really Good News 

California has deployed the world’s most robust and effective portfolio of climate change policies, many of which focus on the transportation sector. Sustainable transportation is often described as a three-legged stool, with clean fuels, efficient vehicles and sustainable community planning as the three legs. California has addressed all three and the ICF research demonstrates how effective that has been. Even if California were to pass no more transportation policies, the combination of the Sustainable Communities Strategies (a.k.a. SB 375), Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), Clean Cars Program, Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate and other policies has made enough of an impact that the state’s projected petroleum consumption trajectory to 2030 has shifted from a nearly 20% increase to a 24% drop, compared to 2015 consumption (illustrated by the blue wedge in the figure below).

Not shown: Reductions due to draconian fuel rationing.... because there are none.

California has already adopted policies which will reduce oil consumption (blue shaded area). More is needed to hit 50% (yellow, orange and green shaded areas).

Let that sink in for a moment… we’ve already done enough to cut petroleum consumption by almost a quarter over the next 15 years. There’s still work to do, however, if we’re going to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Much more aggressive targets will be required, like Governor Brown’s recent executive order, which calls for a 40% GHG reduction by 2030. Just cutting petroleum by a quarter is obviously not enough.

Second, More Good News

Luckily, there are some obvious places to start looking for more cuts. Many of the policies which got us that 24% cut expire well before 2030; extending a successful policy is a pretty simple option. So, if you extend policies like the LCFS (expiring 2020), the ZEV mandate (expiring 2025) and the Federal CAFE standards (no additional improvements scheduled after 2025[1]) along their existing  trajectories, you get to around 38% cuts. That’s over ¾ of the way to the petroleum reduction goal, by simply carrying on with the policies that are already in place and working effectively.

To get that last chunk of cuts takes some effort, but still lies firmly within the realm of “things we know how to do,” it doesn’t require massive deployment of hydrogen fuel cells or some other as-yet-undeveloped technology. People will still be able to get around in very familiar ways. It’s a matter of pushing along the same path we’re already on, just a little faster than we are now.

Available sooner than a functional fusion reactor.

Example of the amazingly advanced technology which will not be necessary to cut oil consumption in half.

What it Will Take

We will have to increase the fraction of fuel which comes from non-petroleum sources, obviously. Some of that can be done by increasing the amount of ethanol in our fuel mix, either by pushing the average concentration of ethanol in gasoline to 15%, from 10% where it is now, or by increasing the use of higher ethanol blends like E85. Drop-in renewable fuels, like the ones being sold today, need to expand from tens of millions of gallons to hundreds. While this is not a trivial exercise, it is a matter of scaling up production of fuels that are already being sold commercially today, not of inventing a new miracle product. Zero emission vehicles, like electric cars and plug-in hybrids, need to go from about 1% of sales today to 30% in 2030. This seems like a lot, but manufacturers are rapidly bringing inexpensive options to market, 37 at last count, including the $34,000 MSRP Chevy Volt or the $35,000 MSRP Tesla Model 3[2]; alternatives to gasoline cars have simply never been this affordable. Heavy duty trucks need to begin to incorporate hybrid technology, as they’re already doing, and move a greater fraction of their fleet to natural gas (preferably renewable natural gas) which, again, many are already doing in order to meet local air pollution regulations.

Combine all of these together, along with a few other small elements, such as more efficient locomotives, increased support for walkable and bikeable communities and more robust electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and you get to the 50% petroleum reduction goal. That’s it, you don’t need hydrogen fuel cells to suddenly take off (though they might anyway), you don’t need everyone to be driving an electric vehicle, and you don’t need to force anyone out of their vehicle with gas rationing, mileage charges or no-drive-zones. You just need to take the things we’ve been doing already and do them a bit more.

A clearly marked path is not the same as an easy one, however. Oil companies realize that their profits depend on maintaining their stranglehold over transportation. Even some of the smaller pieces of the puzzle require complex rulemaking or legislation. The historically low oil prices we are seeing right now undercut the innate financial advantage of renewable fuels. It will take continued focus by policy makers and the public to achieve these goals. The critical thing to remember is that the world of Half the Oil looks a lot less foreign to us than we might think.


Disclosure: NextGen Climate America contributed financial support to the ICF report featured in this post and I was a member of the advisory committee which reviewed drafts before release.

[1] Technically, the state could not implement a fuel economy standard like CAFE, however it could conceivably re-introduce a tailpipe GHG emission standard, like that created by AB 1493 (Pavely), which was dropped when the Federal Government issued an equivalent fuel economy standard.

[2] Mention of a product or manufacturer does not imply endorsement by the author or NextGen Climate America.

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