Correcting the record: CALmatters story on California's goal to cut oil use

I was quoted out of context in a story on California’s SB 350 published by CALmatters August 4. Ordinarily I’d just chalk it up to the hazards of dealing with the press, but the story’s being reprinted, and it’s an important issue, so I want to correct the record. Here’s how the interview came about and what I said in the course of a half-hour, wide-ranging interview.

The reporter, Kate Galbraith, contacted me to follow up on a presentation I made on July 8 at the CARB/CalSTA/Caltrans symposium “California’s 2030 climate commitments: Cutting Petroleum Use in Half by 2030.” I had been invited by CARB and by the Governor’s office to talk about conventional vehicle innovation.

Ms. Galbraith contacted me on July 21 wanting to follow up on my comments. In her email she wrote: “I’d like to understand more about to what extent the CAFE standards are likely to bring down fuel consumption; how quickly computer technology is accelerating progress (a point you mentioned); and how realistic a 50% cut by 2030 is.”

I agreed to talk to her and the phone call lasted about half an hour. This is a complicated issue and our conversation touched on vehicle efficiency, technology innovation, and — importantly — biofuels. The mistake I made was discussing the different factors sequentially and not specifically connecting the dots. Thus, during the discussion about vehicle efficiency, I stated that fleet turnover is a major problem with meeting a 2030 goal, as the average lifespan of vehicles in use is over 11 years and it takes a long time to turn the fleet over. More than 50% reductions in fuel consumption through improving new vehicle efficiency (including electric vehicles) are feasible, as documented in many reports (see for example here and here and here), but accomplishing that through vehicle efficiency alone by 2030 is not, because of the time it takes to turn over the vehicle fleet. This is what the reporter quoted and, if taken in isolation, the quote was accurate.

However, the quote was taken out of context. Later in the discussion, I raised the issue of biofuels and specifically stated that biofuels are the wild card. The petroleum reductions from biofuels are immediate and don’t have to wait for fleet turnover, thus the 50 × 30 goal could be met with large amounts of biofuels. I was clear that it wouldn’t be easy, as it requires development of drop-in replacements of gasoline and diesel fuel, but it could be done. I also discussed ways that biomass could be made into drop-in fuels, such as biodiesel, flash pyrolysis of cellulose, and liquefaction using either natural gas or gasification of cellulose as the feedstock. Ms. Galbraith commented that this might be 2–3 times the price of gasoline/diesel and I corrected her, saying that it wouldn’t be cheap but it wouldn’t cost anywhere near that much.

Unfortunately, none of the broader discussion — which would have been a constructive contribution to the public debate over SB 350 — made it into the final story. What did make it in was technically accurately transcribed, but Ms. Galbraith had every reason to understand that it misrepresented a wide-ranging discussion of a complicated issue. And she had ample opportunity to ask me to clarify this quote after I plainly contradicted it within minutes, when I raised the impact of biofuels.

California has for a long time been not only a national but a global leader in transportation and environmental policy. With Senate Bill 350, it would assume that role as assertively as it ever has. The challenge would not be easy, but the California public has shown that it understands that complex problems have complex solutions, and that it’s willing to grapple with the complicated long-term challenge of climate and energy policy. It deserves to have the full story, not an oversimplified version that just stops at “this will be hard.”