Who stands to lose in California’s gas price debate?

People protesting the high cost of gasoline at a Los Angeles site during June 2022. (Photo: Ringo Chiu, via Shutterstock)

In the past six months, the volatility of fuel prices has been a major concern for Californians as well as a contentious issue between politicians and oil refiners. Even with gas prices decreasing upwards of $0.70 a gallon, the average price per gallon now is significantly more than it was this time last year.

The debates and conversations between those in the fuel industry and politicians, however, gloss over an even more important point: how we can help those who stand to lose the most.

As Dan Walters and Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Tufts University Climate Policy Lab, point out, moving from old gas-powered infrastructure to the new zero-emissions infrastructure leaves a middle transitionary period where disadvantaged communities are almost always left out. Those most in need in our state are dealing with drastically high gas prices, without the ability to purchase new pricey electric vehicles.

As politicians and the oil industry continue their tug-of-war in Sacramento, we should be looking at viable options to offer drivers immediate relief at the pump.

As the state begins phasing out new gasoline-powered car sales by 2035, low- and middle-income drivers will continue to have less access to new zero-emissions cars. Rather, they will continue driving and purchasing used, fossil fuel-powered vehicles for years, leaving them vulnerable to gas price increases and leaving under-resourced communities with a higher preponderance of gas-guzzling vehicles and pollution.

In late September, the governor called for the early transition from summer blend to winter-blend fuels, in hopes that the cheaper-to-produce winter blend would bring down prices. According to the governor, “allowing refiners to make an early transition to winter-blend gasoline could quickly increase fuel supply and provide a much-needed safety valve with minimal air quality impacts.” In the immediate aftermath, this seemed to have slowed gas-price spikes, but hoping the market will not spike again is not a long-term solution for under-resourced communities.

Much more needs to be done, and the governor is set to start a special legislative session in December to discuss a new tax on oil company profits. This is meant to penalize fossil fuel companies for “rank price gouging.” However, it is unclear whether passing such a tax will be feasible and whether it will equate to a real change in prices at the pump.

These biofuels are an alternative to fossil fuels for cars and trucks with internal combustion engines.

As politicians and the oil industry continue their tug-of-war in Sacramento, we should be looking at viable options to offer drivers immediate relief at the pump. Moving toward zero-emission transportation requires a better-managed process to address market uncertainties in the transportation fuel sector.

California, a state normally known for innovation and forward-thinking, has yet to fully deploy advanced fuel technologies – such as renewable diesel, renewable natural gas (RNG), biodiesel, E15 and E85 – already available to minimize tailpipe emissions and give Californians relief at the pump. All across California today, in places where higher biofuel blends like E85 are available, prices are nearly half of the cost of regular gasoline.

These biofuels are an alternative to fossil fuels for cars and trucks with internal combustion engines. Derived from renewable organic materials, when used in place of fossil fuels, biofuels can dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and other toxic emissions.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), which oversees fuel regulations, recently funded the University of California’s carbon neutrality studies, which concluded that millions of internal combustion engine vehicles will remain on our state roads through 2045 and beyond, sustaining a significant demand for gasoline in excess of two billion gallons per year.

These same CARB-funded studies stressed the need for more biofuels to displace a far greater share of the residual fuel demand that would otherwise be consumed by drivers unable to purchase electric vehicles or take advantage of alternative transportation options. And with fuel shortages leading to higher prices, biofuels can also replace the missing supply to bring prices back down.

At the same time, these biofuels can boost climate progress under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). Advanced fuel technologies already approved by CARB under LCFS have been shown to reduce carbon emissions by millions of tons. Liquid biofuels were responsible for 77 percent of total greenhouse reductions between 2011 and 2020. These same alternatives actively displace petroleum-based toxins in the fuel supply.

Governor Newsom should ask CARB to move quickly to adopt a wide variety of alternative fuel blends. This will not only help California clean its air, but it will ensure that more communities, especially low-income and middle-income households, will be able to tap into clean energy options to meet their transportation needs in a way they can afford.

Editor’s Nolte: Jim Kennedy is the executive director of Healthy Air Alliance, a coalition of groups advocating for improved air quality.

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