There is little doubt that Earth’s climate is changing, and science points to those changes primarily being driven by increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere from transportation, industry, and power generation. Time is of the essence as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and fleets across the country consider a variety of emissions reduction technologies such as biomass-based diesel fuels, electric vehicles, and other alternatives to help slow the progression of climate change. However, while other viable solutions are still being developed, biomass-based diesel fuels such as biodiesel and renewable diesel are already delivering both emissions reductions and public health benefits today and will continue to do so well into the future.
California deserves its reputation as a world leader in addressing climate change, so it makes a fitting venue for the 2021 Advanced Clean Transportation Expo, held in Long Beach from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, 2021. The ACT Expo featured a wide variety of clean vehicle technologies on display, including a Class 8 truck from National Biodiesel Board member company Optimus Technologies, powered by 100% biodiesel.
We have communities historically over-burdened with environmental problems, with many located near pollution sources.
However, many California residents believe the state’s laser focus on climate change has come at the cost of its original mission — protecting the health of its citizens. As someone who has been dedicated to improving air quality and reducing carbon throughout my career, I believe strongly it doesn’t have to be one or the other. In addition to pursuing long-term decarbonization strategies like deep electrification, California, and indeed the rest of the nation, should employ drop-in solutions now that can immediately improve the health of its citizens — particularly those in historically disadvantaged communities. Increasing the use of biodiesel and renewable diesel would help accomplish this important goal sooner versus later.
I grew up in downtown Los Angeles, where like many others I suffered “Stage 3” smog alerts. As an adult, I found purpose in a 30-year career with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), where I helped develop programs including the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). As the concept of Environmental Justice began to emerge, I visited many disadvantaged communities hit disproportionately hard by emissions — such as those surrounding the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — and it wasn’t hard for me to relate.
Environmental justice (EJ) represents a paradigm shift in governance, reflecting a growing recognition that the benefits of efforts like decarbonization have not been applied equally. We have communities historically over-burdened with environmental problems, with many located near pollution sources. Environmental Justice is about leveling the playing field and reducing the burden for those communities.
Pollution is literally a life-or-death situation, and it is not just an issue in the ports.
Every family I talked with during these EJ engagements either suffered from asthma or cancer, or had a direct relationship with someone else who did. Particularly around the ports, the question was always, “Why can’t you do something about the trucks?” Residents near the ports deal with miles-long lines of trucks idling in or around their neighborhoods continuously. Those residents get exposed to the worst-polluting trucks.
Pollution is literally a life-or-death situation, and it is not just an issue in the ports. Yet residents of disadvantaged communities are told by the state to just wait. Electrification is coming, they hear. But when you look at the largest tractor-trailer trucks our economy so relies on, currently 97% of those trucks are powered by diesel engines. Even CARB estimates no more than about 20% of those would be electrified by 2040.
The good news is that there are other tangible solutions readily available now, not years or decades away. Take biodiesel and renewable diesel, for example. Under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, California has already begun to embrace these diesel replacements, which play a critical role in our climate effort. Made from an increasingly diverse mix of resources such as recycled cooking oil, plant oils, and animal fats, biodiesel and renewable diesel are better, cleaner fuels that are available now for use in existing diesel engines, and they make up almost half of our LCFS carbon reductions. That’s the equivalent to removing 1 million vehicles off the road.
Biodiesel and renewable diesel are better, cleaner fuels that are available now for use in existing diesel engines, and they make up almost half of our LCFS carbon reductions.
These advanced fuels are not simply good for addressing climate change; they also improve local community health. A new study from Trinity Consultants demonstrates that switching to biodiesel results in an array of health benefits at the neighborhood level, including decreased cancer risk, fewer premature deaths and reduced asthma attacks. The study, sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board, used well-established Environmental Protection Agency and CARB air dispersion modeling tools. They were coupled with health risk assessments and benefit valuations to assess the public health benefits and resulting economic savings of converting from petroleum-based diesel to 100% biodiesel, known as B100. The study focused on 13 sites and communities in the U.S. exposed to high rates of petroleum diesel pollution. In California, those sites included the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, West Oakland, South Fresno and San Bernardino.
Researchers found that switching to 100% biodiesel for transportation, as well as home heating oil used mostly on the East Coast, would annually bring the 13 communities studied:
- 340 fewer premature deaths
- 46,000 fewer lost workdays
- $3 billion in avoided health care costs
In the transportation sector, benefits included a potential 45% reduction in cancer risk when heavy-duty trucks such as semis use B100, and 203,000 fewer or lessened asthma attacks.
The study also considered the economic cost of premature deaths, asthma cases, reduced activity due to poor health and work impacted due to sick days. For example, researchers found the communities surrounding the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach would avoid about $1.69 billion in health costs each year due to improved air quality in the form of reduced premature deaths and health care costs, and increased productivity.
As these numbers represent findings from just 13 sites and communities, they are truly the tip of the iceberg. Also, the benefits quantified can be extrapolated to other blends of biodiesel and to similar sites in California and around the country.
With states increasingly focusing on electrification as a primary strategy for decarbonization, this study shows the importance of a holistic decarbonization plan that includes other low carbon alternatives. The LCFS has garnered a high degree of success, largely with the help of biodiesel and renewable diesel replacing more diesel fuel in the state of California. On average, these fuels comprised 24% of each gallon of diesel fuel consumed in 2020 in California. But we can do even more to help hard-hit communities in California and across the nation. States should engage all available instruments to max out the amount of biodiesel and renewable diesel they can use, especially in Environmental Justice communities.
By using renewable fuels like biodiesel and renewable diesel, we bring positive change to people’s lives and their health, all while benefiting our climate and economy, too.