By Sam Wade
For The Herald
The Pacific Coast has seen significant success in combating air pollution since the dawn of this century. Our state and regional neighbors — Oregon, California and British Columbia — have each established policies to combat emissions and pollution from the transportation sector.
This month the Washington state Senate may determine the fate of Washington’s current initiative, House Bill 1110, to finally join its Pacific brethren in taking a stand against the negative health and climate impacts associated with emissions of carbon, particulate matter and greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use.
A decade ago, Washington legislators set in place a plan to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions to reach 1990 levels by the year 2020. Dozens of states have made similar pledges. But without specifically tackling the largest emitter — our transportation sector — with a clean fuels program, the most recent tally in the state Department of Ecology’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory shows the effort is coming up far short.
The report shows that state emissions spiked 6.1 percent between 2012 and 2015. Transportation contributes the largest share — 42.5 percent — to those emissions of any sector, twice those of the next largest sector (residential, commercial and industrial at 21.3 percent). It is clear from the statistics that it is essential to prioritize emissions from the transportation sector if Washington is to get near to its goal.
Experts agree on the universe of options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources. We can cut the use of fuel — through fuel-efficiency upgrades or changes in behavior, including public transit ridership and cycling — and we can change the type of fuel used when we must use vehicles. These fuels include biodiesel and renewable diesel, clean electricity, and one perhaps lesser-known, proven option: renewable natural gas, or biogas-derived biomethane.
Unlike fossil natural gas, renewable natural gas production does not utilize technologies like hydraulic fracturing. Instead, renewable natural gas is produced from the largest waste streams in society today: landfills, diverted food waste, wastewater plants and livestock operations. These waste sources emit methane — a highly potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.
Renewable natural gas projects prevent this from happening, by capturing the methane and converting it into an ultra-low-carbon renewable fuel or electricity.
I know first-hand the benefits a region can realize from a state clean fuels program that seeks to replace more carbon-intensive fuels such as diesel and petroleum, with lower-carbon and renewable alternative fuels and vehicles. I lived in Sacramento for years while working at the California Air Resources Board, including four years as the lead administrator of the state’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard program. Coinciding with enactment of California’s fuel standard, between 2007 and 2018, the Sacramento region saw a significant drop in the number of unhealthy ozone days, halving from 78 to 39 days, and in the number of unhealthy particle pollution days (from 20 to four days), according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air Report.
The combined data from California, Oregon and British Columbia’s low-carbon fuel standards are remarkable, as noted in a policy brief published last week by the Pacific Coast Collaborative (a group made up of lawmakers, elected officials and administrators from the region’s jurisdictions).
Collectively, use of alternative fuels in place of fossil fuels has resulted in close to 53 million metric tons fewer of greenhouse gas emissions. That is the equivalent of removing 11 million passenger cars from the road for a year. Alternative fuels under the programs in these three jurisdictions have provided the transportation energy equivalent — meaning effectively replaced — 9 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.
It is Washington’s turn to act. The state House of Representatives has already done so, approving HB 1110. Now the Senate must follow suit, lest Washington remain the outlier among its neighbors that are acting to reduce emissions, combat climate change, and create cleaner air and better health for their citizens.
Sam Wade is the former chief of the California Air Resources Board Transportation Fuel Branch and current director of State Regulatory Affairs at the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas.