Cough, cough: California ignores its own emissions data in push for IC engine ban

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida Headshot
Updated Oct 3, 2017

Headlines hit this week stating that California is considering a ban on the nation’s critical workhorse, the internal-combustion engine.

Governor Jerry Brown is behind the push, according to CARB chair Mary Nichols.

“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” Nichols told,  referring to China’s planned phase-out of fossil-fuel vehicle sales. “The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.”

Okay, so why not the other way around? How about, “If California can do this, why not China?” Of course, I’m alluding to the fact that CARB recently awarded its lowest emissions score ever—not to an electric vehicle—but rather to renewable natural gas (RNG) produced by AMP Americas at their Fair Oaks Farms facility in Indiana.

AMP’s -255 carbon intensity (CI) score easily beat diesel (98 CI), traditional natural gas (79 CI) and California electric (35). Thanks goes to AMP for putting out a press release on that, because to date CARB has not. Looking at CARB’s news releases today, however, there is a headline titled, “California and China team up to push for millions more zero-emission vehicles.”

So did California’s secession somehow go unnoticed?! Okay, so it’s no secret that California has been going its own way on emissions and other big issues. That’s not the point here. The point is that the internal combustion engine, by CARB’s own admission, is far superior to that of an electric powertrain in terms of its carbon intensity score.

I didn’t make up the rules. CARB did. Here’s how it works: AMP captures methane gas at production facilities located on dairy farms and renders it into engine-ready RNG. Now, if you take methane into account, which CARB considers to be a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, AMP’s RNG easily wins with that jaw-dropping CI score of -255. You see, AMP is collecting that potent methane that otherwise would enter the atmosphere which CARB believes would have a far worse impact than CO2. So, why aren’t Gov. Brown and Nichols parading a press release around about that?

Well…this might have something to do with it. It’s an excerpt from CARB’s June 7 press release, “California and China team up to push for millions more zero-emission vehicles.”

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols and other state officials met today with China’s leading automakers and battery manufacturers in an effort to expand cooperation and accelerate deployment of zero-emission cars, trucks and buses.

“In order to achieve California’s climate goals, we need more electric cars and more hydrogen fuel cell cars that are charged with renewable energy,” said Governor Brown.

“California and China have both seen what unchecked emissions can do to public health, the environment and our economies,” said Nichols.  “Building on these shared concerns and the progress we both have made in zero-emission and battery technology, we can work as partners to bring tens of millions of the cleanest possible vehicles to market over the next decade and a half.”

Notice Gov. Brown’s last line “…tens of millions of the cleanest possible vehicles to the market over the next decade and a half.”

Again, the cleanest possible vehicles at this point, according to CARB, would be those running on RNG, that is if the agency follows its own math. But, in following the money, we see that in 2016 California paid $9 million for electric drayage trucks from China-based BYD, the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles.

Look, it’s not just how Nichols and Gov. Brown ignore AMP’s stellar CI score that’s disappointing, it’s also how their narrow fixation on electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles excludes the impressive strides made by engineers to drastically reduce emissions from internal combustion engines.

The latest diesel engines are running cleaner than ever. Manufacturers have been successful at hitting increasingly stringent federal and state emissions goals all the while moving vital freight across the country. And if they don’t run clean, then limp mode can kick in until that problem is addressed.

Natural gas continues to make inroads into medium- and heavy-duty classes. Cummins Westport announced last year that its ISL G Near Zero (NZ) NOx natural gas engine became the first mid-range engine in North America to receive emission certification from both the U.S. EPA and CARB to meet the optional 0.02 g/bhp-hr. That certification came eight years in advance of the 2023 California Near Zero NOx schedule under California Clean Air initiatives. I hope that Gov. Brown realizes that when he’s talking about eliminating internal combustion engines, that includes taking aim at the ISL G Near Zero. Where’s the sense in that? The issue is emissions, right?

Natural gas upfitter Landi Renzo told HWT in July that California was only recognizing a handful of certification labs and jacking up the costs of certification, making it “very, very challenging” to do business in the Golden State.

Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas founder and CEO Johannes Escudero reminded an ACT Expo audience in May of the tough competition in California posed by vehicle electrification proponents.

“We need all the help we can get. There’s a strong bias towards electrification of the transportation sector,” Escudero said during Game Changer Summit 2.0. “That’s where much of the state and federal funding is going to these days and I think some of that will change. We’re working hard to mitigate some of that but we need everybody’s support.”

Doubtless, California has shown an active interest in a variety of alt fuels. It was a large consumer of biodiesel before becoming the first state in the nation to switch its fleet to renewable diesel. Major cities there followed suit. And again, it was CARB that touted the lower emissions and high cetane numbers of that synthetic fuel.

What about dimethyl ether (DME)? Is that off the table? Earlier this year, Mack told HWT that tests on this exceptionally clean-burning fuel were going good in a Mack MP8-equipped refuse truck at New York City Department of Sanitation. Like RNG, DME can be produced from waste. That’s promising news for the refuse industry. The clear fuel is safe enough to drink and requires no after-treatment system.

“Dimethyl ether is a fuel that can be derived from a food waste and/or natural gas,” New York City Department of Sanitation Deputy Commissioner Rocco DiRico told HWT. “It also provides for a much, more clean tailpipe than standard diesel or biodiesel, or even renewable diesel. With dimethyl ether you don’t need any after-treatments on the truck, such as the DPFs or the SCR.”

There’s also compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, propane and—gasp!—gasoline-powered engines, all of which continue to make emissions improvements.

Electric powertrains continue to make better gains with range, but they’re still much more expensive and so heavy that their use is currently better suited to nothing more than regional hauling. Environmentalists have also voiced concerns about battery production and disposal. On the business side, investment strategists are buzzing over the future prospects of cobalt, lithium and rare-earth metals used to make those huge batteries.

I think variety is key. Market fluctuations can certainly impact fuel prices to varying degrees, depending on the fuel’s origins. A rich diversity of engine and fuel choices not only lessens financial risk, it also improves the odds for additional innovations that can lead to greater engine efficiency and cleaner emissions. And after all, isn’t that what California’s after?