Overview of California Low Carbon Fuel Standard for Sustainable Transportation

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California is known for having some of the most extensive regulations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. One of its most successful emissions reduction commitments is California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS).  

HOW CALIFORNIA’S LOW CARBON FUEL STANDARD REGULATION WORKS

The goal of California’s LCFS program is to reduce 20 percent of carbon emissions throughout the entire energy life cycle by 2030.

line chart illustrating the future carbon reduction goals outlined by the LCFS regulation overlay-ed with percent of carbon reduction achieved to date.
The chart above highlights California’s targets for reducing carbon intensity through 2030. The light blue line indicates compliance has met or exceeded imposed targets through 2018, though loftier ambitions in the coming years could create compliance complications.

Setting Carbon Intensity (CI) Limits

This program sets a limit on the number of allowable carbon emissions that transportation fuel producers and importers are collectively allowed to produce. This limit is known as the carbon intensity target and it looks at the entire life cycle of each energy type from production to consumption. The state government reduces this target each year, achieving the 2030 goal incrementally over time. 

The 20 percent reduction is a collective goal, so to ensure that the entire transportation fuel landscape reaches this target, each player must quantify the level of emissions they produce. 

Carbon Intensity Scoring Across the Energy Lifecycle

To do this, producers and importers must undergo a strenuous process with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to analyze carbon emissions released throughout the entire life cycle of their transportation fuel. From this information, CARB allocates a carbon intensity score. 

The following graph illustrates carbon intensities by fuel type—diesel is one of the most carbon-intensive, while specific RNG pathways represent the lowest carbon intensity of all fuel types.

A chart that shows the range of associated carbon intensity scores for different fuel types based on their pathways
Even within a single fuel type, the sourcing and method of fuel type generation influence a range of carbon intensities. Here, the dotted line for 2020 indicates whether a carbon intensity score would equal a deficit or a credit.

Receive Either Credits or Deficits Based on Your Score

When held against the current year’s state-mandated carbon intensity target, each fuel’s carbon intensity results in either a carbon deficit or carbon credits. Producers must net carbon emissions no greater than the target. 

Diesel, for example, creates a deficit due to its high carbon intensity score, which will continue to generate greater deficits year-over-year as the targets become more stringent. 

MEETING CARBON INTENSITY TARGETS WITH LCFS CREDIT TRADING

Producers and importers of transportation fuel can meet the LCFS carbon intensity target in one of two ways:

  • By transitioning to low carbon intensity fuels.
  • By continuing to produce high carbon intensity fuel and purchasing credits from low carbon fuel producers to offset their deficit. 

The challenge of some fossil fuel producers transitioning to lower-carbon fuel options, like renewable natural gas (RNG) or biodiesel, is often far too great to be feasible.

comparative bar chart that shows the supply and demand of low carbon fuel standard credits and deficits for all fuels reported.

This makes LCFS trading a vital part of the regulation. To ease the challenge of meeting carbon intensity targets in the near term, producers and importers can purchase additional low carbon fuel standard credits from organizations that are already under their target. This is much like the more traditional cap-and-trade system California is known for.

LCFS IS INCENTIVIZING CHANGE ACROSS THE SUPPLY CHAIN

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is designed to incentivize the production of cleaner fuels and processes while keeping these changes within a reasonable scope. 

First, LCFS encourages large firms with high levels of carbon intensity to work towards the specified emissions targets in the future. Without credits, the cost of achieving designated carbon intensity targets would be vast. Some firms would likely opt to incur fines because they cannot afford to make sizable investments all at once. 

This makes LCFS trading a vital part of the regulation. To ease the challenge of meeting carbon intensity targets in the near term, producers and importers can purchase additional low carbon fuel standard credits from organizations that are already under their target. This is much like the more traditional cap-and-trade system California is known for.

LCFS INCENTIVIZING CHANGE ACROSS THE SUPPLY CHAIN

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is designed to incentivize the production of cleaner fuels and processes while keeping these changes within a reasonable scope. 

First, LCFS encourages large firms with high levels of carbon intensity to work towards the specified emissions targets in the future. Without credits, the cost of achieving designated carbon intensity targets would be vast. Some firms would likely opt to incur fines because they cannot afford to make sizable investments all at once. 

Line chart that compares low carbon fuel credits generated by fuel type, with renewable diesel and ethanol leading the pack with most credits generated

Investing in new technology is one method organizations might leverage to meet their targets. Scrubber technology, electric vehicles, adopting alternative and renewable fuel types, optimized supply chains, and more fuel-efficient modes of transportation allow shippers to capitalize on growing incentives from the LCFS program.

The LCFS program is having a positive impact on alternative fuels use in California.  California’s widespread consumption of biodiesel, renewable diesel, and renewable natural gas has recently grown at a greater pace than the national average. The program shows renewable diesel as the biggest LCFS credit generator in the last two years, illustrated by the red line below.  Electric vehicle credits have also been on the rise since 2016, though mostly through light-duty vehicles.

The LCFS program, along with cap-and-trade, is approved to continue through 2030, allowing program certainty and ensuring positive impacts in the long-term.

CALIFORNIA’S LCFS Credits Prices Influenced by COVID-19

Shifting market share away from conventional fuels toward more low-carbon options comes with many challenges. The additional upstream costs derived from the LCFS program will likely drive the price of high-carbon fuels upward in the near term, but experienced some disruption in Q1 and Q2 2020. 

COVID-19 restrictive measures led to decreased deficit-generating fossil fuel usage, sending LCFS credit prices down roughly 20% in March. Since that time, LCFS credit prices have regained most of these losses and currently sit above $200 per credit. This equates to a $0.20/gallon premium for diesel fuel and has re-strengthened the financial incentive of low-carbon fuels use in California. 

The FUTURE of LCFS in Transportation

In 2020, new fuel pathways from eight different fuel producers have been certified with negative or zero carbon intensity scores. 

As the program continues to grow and carbon intensity targets leading up to the year 2030 decrease, credit prices are predicted to rise, larger deficits for conventional fuels are likely, and credit generation is predicted to come to a halt to meet the upcoming annual targets.  As a result, demand for LCFS credits will soon outweigh supply, driving the price of the available credits upward. 

This, in turn, will create a growing cost for users of conventional fuels due to their required reliance on low carbon intensity producers who have credits available. Low carbon intensity credit holders will be able to create a price premium for their available credits, resulting in higher prices for conventional fuels, such as diesel, and a growing financial incentive for use of low carbon or renewable fuels.

When looking at the long-term outlook for alternative energies, it has become clear that the economically viable strategy for shippers and manufacturers operating in California is to invest now to prepare for the future.

 The ability to execute a well-planned energy management strategy will be the difference between capturing the financial and sustainability benefits of a low-carbon supply chain or falling victim to the increasing cost of carbon.

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard: Explained

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