Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program: Building on past successes to maximize climate, health and economic benefits in Oregon

From the Climate Protection Program to the Clean Truck Rules, Oregon has made significant progress in recent months to tackle climate emissions from our top polluting sector: transportation.

Yet, even with these important policy achievements, Oregon is still not on track to meet the level of progress needed or envisioned to achieve our climate goals. While our state has reemerged as a national climate leader, we will need to go bigger and bolder every year to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

If we want to reach our climate goals, we need to be really bold, and that means changing the way we get around. For starters, we’ll need to reduce the amount we rely on cars, which we can do in part through smarter community design like transit-oriented housing development. We also have the opportunity to reshape the transportation system through policies and investments that prioritize accessible, affordable, and safe transportation options–like public transit, walking, and biking–and electrify all the remaining driving. 

However, hard as we might try, we’re not going to overhaul the transportation system overnight. 

That’s where Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program comes in.

The Environmental Center E-bus Tour | Neil Baunsgard

Adopted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2016, the Clean Fuels Program is one of Oregon’s most successful policies for reducing climate pollution: in just six years, it has cut nearly 6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Key to the program’s success is its holistic, “well-to-wheels” approach to measuring emissions from vehicle pollution. The program looks at the climate impact from how a fuel was extracted, processed, and transported, to its final use. It then assigns a “carbon intensity” score for each type of fuel, and requires a reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels over time. 

Businesses, local governments, school districts, and others that create or use fuels that are cleaner than the annual limit generate credits, while higher carbon intensity fuels create deficits. An Oregon-based company that refines waste grease (a product that would normally end up in a landfill and create methane emissions) into biodiesel or a transit agency that invests in electric buses would create credits, whereas an oil company based in Nebraska that transports and supplies traditional gasoline or diesel in Oregon would generate deficits. 

Credits are only created when clean fuels are used in Oregon and displace the use of higher-carbon fuels. Businesses that sell high carbon fuels have to balance out the number of deficits they hold by purchasing credits, which in turn produces revenue to pay for projects that lower climate pollution, such as installing electric charging stations or purchasing an electric school bus. The Clean Fuels Program encourages further reductions in carbon intensity by allowing a fuel provider to sell credits they have earned by going beyond the reduction goals for that year. 

The result has been cleaner fuels, better health outcomes, and a more vibrant economy.

Notable benefits from the program’s six first years include: 

  • 1 billion gallons of fossil fuels displaced.
  • Improved local air quality and public health, saving people in Oregon millions of dollars in avoided health costs. 
  • $100 million annually in the clean fuels market, leading to increased production of lower-cost, low-carbon fuels, technological innovation, and electric vehicle infrastructure.   

In addition to these many benefits, the Clean Fuels Program has helped increase energy security and protect Oregonians against harmful oil and gas price fluctuations at the pump. The fact is, the more we move toward electric vehicles and cleaner fuels made in Oregon, the less Oregonians have to worry about the price of oil and gas being determined half a world away.    

Recognizing the important role of the Clean Fuels Program in achieving Oregon’s climate goals, Governor Brown directed the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to extend and expand the program’s carbon intensity targets to achieve greater climate pollution reductions by 2035.

DEQ is currently working to implement this directive through a rulemaking process.

OEC has a seat on the advisory committee that is working to help inform the Clean Fuels Program expansion– and that means we have an opportunity to maximize the many benefits that the program brings to Oregon. In particular, we’re pushing DEQ to: 

  • Meet the level of ambition that science demands, by expanding the carbon intensity reduction targets to at least 20% below 2015 levels by 2030 and 37% below 2015 levels by 2035. The carbon intensity reduction targets are essential to the overall ambition of the Clean Fuels Program and moving the needle on climate emissions and co-pollutant reductions in the transportation sector. 
  • Maximize clean air, climate, and health benefits, by working to ensure that carbon intensity reduction targets are achieved through electrification as much as possible. 
  • Prioritize equitable economic outcomes, by encouraging credit-generating utilities to fund affordable and accessible public charging infrastructure in underserved areas such as low-income, BIPOC and rural communities.

A strong Clean Fuels Program expansion will help create jobs in the clean fuels economy, improve public health by reducing harmful co-pollutants from tailpipe emissions, and invest in local communities and economies. But as with any rulemaking process, it is critical that community members like you pay attention, show up, and make your voice heard.

You can show your support for an ambitious Clean Fuels Program by attending a virtual public forum hosted by the Environmental Quality Commission at 4:00 pm on May 19th. Join using this Zoom link and follow these instructions to make your voice heard at the meeting, and feel free to use the above bullets to help shape your comments! 

Can’t make the meeting? Sign up here to stay up-to-date on future opportunities to voice your support for this and other climate protection priorities in Oregon. 

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