Commentary

APRIL 2016

Peter Boag
President & CEO, Canadian Fuels Association

 

Carbon is not something we can simply switch off like carbohydrates from a diet 


Canada has chosen a sustainable low-carbon future as our goal. The route and the journey are proving a challenge to map. This is partly because we are coming to realize that carbon is not something we can simply switch off like carbohydrates from a diet. Why can’t we stop pumping petroleum fuel right now? Why aren’t we driving zero-emission vehicles today?  The answer is that alternative fuel and vehicle technologies have not yet lived up to their promises.

The development of alternative transportation options — and the nation-wide infrastructures to support them — is underway, but it will take decades; some say generations.

Here petroleum makes a promise: to remain a reliable, clean, affordable and readily available fuel even as the fuel mix gradually diversifies. This promise does not absolve our industry from improving its products. No fuel technology has a monopoly on innovation, and one of the main reasons petroleum fuels remain relevant is because every aspect of gasoline and diesel performance — including environmental impact — undergoes continuous improvement.

Our industry has eliminated lead from gasoline, cut benzene content to less than one per cent of volume and reduced sulphur levels in gasoline by 90 per cent and in diesel by 97 per cent.

Now we are gearing up to meet new regulatory standards and to cut sulphur content in gasoline by a further 70 per cent starting in 2017. The latest fuel and vehicle standards will virtually eliminate many pollutants in new cars. In fact, light-duty vehicles built to this standard will near a point where smog-causing emissions would be all but negligible. (The on-road light-duty automotive fleet is the only sector to demonstrate continuous year-over-year reduction in smog-causing emissions since 1985.)

But what about GHG emissions?  How can we make material progress in reducing the carbon footprint of transportation?  Improving fuel efficiency through technology in one pathway. Canada is already making good progress, with new regulations for light duty vehicles requiring a five per cent year-over-year improvement out to 2025.  Similar requirements for heavy duty vehicles are in the works.  The petroleum industry is working collaboratively with vehicle manufacturers to ensure that fuel formulations and specifications evolve to enable vehicle manufacturers to achieve these new fuel efficiency standards that will reduce transportation sector GHG emissions.  Alternative vehicle and fuel technologies will also play a role, but there are practical and economic challenges and barriers that will impact both the degree to which, and the pace at which, lower carbon fuels will displace gasoline and diesel in transportation.  As I think about the role of technology in reducing transportation GHG emissions, three fundamental questions come to mind:  How much can technology accomplish?  What will it cost?  How much are we willing to change behaviour?