When the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, the implications were clear. Rather than waiting for the Congress and President to agree on federal climate change policy, presumably built around an economy-wide cap & trade system or a carbon tax, the Court told the EPA that it had all the authority it needed under the Clean Air Act to order emitters of greenhouse gases to cut back--regardless of the wider repercussions. Now a lawsuit filed by the Attorneys General of New York and eleven other states seeks to force the EPA to implement this ruling on emissions from US oil refineries. But unlike a comprehensive approach, such a selective effort would greatly worsen the nation's energy security, while having very little impact on overall US greenhouse gas emissions.
The US emitted a net 6.2 billion tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases (GHG) last year. Reducing those emissions has become a high priority, and pending a federal response along the lines of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner cap & trade legislation that failed to pass the Congress earlier this year, the states have largely taken the lead. New York's suit to force the EPA to implement the High Court's ruling on CO2 as a pollutant is just one example of this trend. But in singling out oil refining, the states have chosen a target with enormous negative leverage on US imports of petroleum products--and thus on US energy security. Moreover, oil refining contributes a very small share of total US GHG emissions. California, which joined New York in filing this suit, is home to nearly 12% of US refining capacity, but its refineries account for only about 3% of the state's emissions, despite processing some of the nation's most challenging crude oil. 3% is small beer, compared to the 39% of US emissions attributable to electricity generation, or the 30% associated with our use of all transportation fuels. (Input from a chemist at the Air Resources Board suggests that refinery emissions may be closer to 7% of the state's total, although that includes co-generated electricity, some of which is sold.)
To appreciate why the cost/benefit ratio of this effort is so poor, you have to understand where GHG emissions occur along the petroleum value chain. End use, not processing, is the biggest source by a long shot. With their raw material priced over $100/bbl, and their other main energy input, natural gas, costing about half that on a barrel-equivalent basis, refiners have ample incentives to be efficient. Every BTU they burn in the course of making gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products is a BTU they can't sell. The latest analysis by Argonne National Laboratory found that the average oil refinery operates at 88% efficiency. Since emissions follow energy use, that means that while burning a gallon of gasoline in your car releases 19.4 lb. of CO2, only 2.6 lb. were emitted refining it. Reducing refinery CO2 emissions by 20% would have no more impact on climate than improving the fuel efficiency of the average car by 0.5 miles per gallon--less, in fact, because the US already imports a million barrels per day of gasoline and gasoline blending components. And there's the rub.
Because CO2 emissions from refineries are tied directly to their energy consumption, the only way refiners have to reduce those emissions is to process less oil, or to process it less intensively. Either option reduces their output of the high-quality transportation fuels the US demands--think reformulated gasoline and ultra-low-sulfur diesel--and forces us to import more of them from overseas, from refineries that won't be subject to the EPA's regulations on emissions. Sure, refiners can buy some renewable electricity, but that won't produce any net GHG reductions for the economy. With most US electricity still generated from fossil fuels, they would just compete with whoever is buying that output today, and drive up the premium on green electrons. And with the economics of wind and solar power still depending more on incentives than on the price of electricity, it would be hard to argue this would lead to additional renewable electricity capacity being built.
No one expects the refining industry to be handed a Get Out of Jail Free card on its greenhouse gas emissions. However, singling out refineries for enforcement of air-pollution-style regulations on their emissions will yield minimal net CO2 reductions and merely shift its emissions offshore, while further eroding the employment and profits of this strategic manufacturing sector. In addition, increasing US imports of refined product would worsen our trade deficit by their margin over crude oil. In the case of diesel fuel, which is in short supply globally, that has averaged $22 per barrel so far this year. The suit by New York, California, and the other states thus reflects a poor grasp of both energy economics and environmental priorities. If we want to reduce the GHG emissions from our use of petroleum, we must focus on squeezing demand for it, not the US companies that process it into fuels.
By the way, The Economist is hosting an interesting debate on whether existing technologies are sufficient to solve our energy problems.