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Low Carbon Fuels

Just as cars and trucks are becoming cleaner, so should the fuels we put in them. The transportation sector emits one-third of US global warming emissions and is the fastest growing sector. Creating a new generation of truly low-carbon fuels is vital to curbing greenhouse gas pollution from the transportation sector and cutting our addiction to oil.

By developing clean, sustainable biofuels, shifting to other lower carbon fuels where appropriate, and electrifying vehicles we can reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Sierra Club's Green Transportation campaign advocates for fuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions based upon a full lifecycle accounting - from the field or well to the tailpipe of the vehicle.


Recognizing the need to cut our addiction to oil, Congress passed energy legislation in 2007 mandating an increase in biofuels from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Congress directed the EPA to set standards for renewable fuels that include measuring emissions associated with growing the feedstock for the fuel, including impacts associated with changes in land use for growing them. The standards require biofuels to reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to gasoline. The energy legislation, however, exempted existing corn ethanol volumes, at least 12 billion gallons, from meeting any lifecycle greenhouse gas standards.

In February 2010, EPA issued standards for renewable fuels that can be used toward meeting the 36 billion gallon biofuels mandate in the 2007 energy bill. Accurately assessing the global warming emissions from biofuels is critical in ensuring that new fuels are part of the solution to global warming, not part of the problem. Similarly, we must protect our forests and natural heritage by establishing strong safeguards on biomass used to create renewable fuels. In addition, shifting away from existing biofuels derived from food - corn primarily - is necessary. Read more about the Renewable Fuel Standard and how we can make smart choices to improve biofuels.

Dirty Fuels

While we are developing cleaner fuels, we must block development of dirty fuels. Fuels such as tar sands oil, coal-to-liquids, and oil shale are all carbon-intensive fuels whose exploitation comes with significant environmental destruction. For example, oil derived from Canadian tar sands is uniquely destructive and, on a lifecycle basis emits as much as 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil sources. Dirty fuels threaten to reduce the benefits of cleaner cars over time if we consider the lifecycle emissions. Find out more about these fuels on the Sierra Club's Dirty Fuels website.

Low Carbon Fuel Standards

Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) policies are one way to ensure that the transportation fuel mix shifts toward lower carbon options. Similar to a Renewable Energy Standard, an LCFS requires fuels to steadily reduce their carbon intensity over a set period of time. In establishing the first LCFS in the country, California set a goal of reducing fuel carbon intensity 10% by 2020. Properly structured, an LCFS policy will distinguish among fuels feeding into the transportation fuel mix based upon the lifecycle carbon intensity of the fuel. An LCFS is a performance-based policy, requiring reductions in carbon intensity from fuels, but not mandating which fuels are used. Therefore, LCFS policies account for alternative fuels, such as electricity, and drive innovation in the development of new fuels.

Given the more than 140 billion gallons of gasoline used to fuel our cars and light trucks each year, we have a long way to go before alternatives to gasoline can provide a meaningful portion of our transportation fuels. In the meantime, increasingly stringent vehicle standards will help ensure the fleet as whole needs less fuel and providing greater transportation choices will help Americans reach their destinations without a car or SUV.

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