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Oregon Paves the Way to Cleaner, Greener Cars

Road near Willamette Falls, OR

Oregon is moving full speed ahead on its efforts to provide cleaner-burning vehicles to consumers.

"Lights Right Behind" by Katie Wheeler/CC BY-NC 2.0

Oregonians will soon be driving vehicles that burn cleaner, greener fuels thanks to a recent federal court ruling dismissing the oil industry’s attacks on Oregon’s clean fuels standard.

Authorized in 2009, Oregon’s clean fuels standard is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by 10 percent over the course of a decade. Given that tailpipe emissions are responsible for nearly 40 percent of Oregon’s greenhouse gas pollution, the new standards are a huge step forward in getting cleaner transportation options out the door and on the road.

Oregon’s clean fuels standard regulates transportation fuels based on their carbon intensity, which is the full lifecycle emissions generated from the production, transport, storage and use of a fuel in a vehicle.  For example, ethanol made from sugarcane, produced using hydroelectricity and natural gas, and transported a short distance to Oregon would have a lower carbon intensity than ethanol made from corn, produced using coal, and transported a greater distance to Oregon. Under the new rule, all importers and producers of transportation fuels in Oregon are required to show that their fuels meet an average annual carbon intensity that decreases over the next 10 years. Importers and producers whose fuels exceed the average can purchase credits from clean fuel producers and importers whose fuels are below the average. 

By creating a marketplace for less carbon-intensive fuels, Oregon’s clean fuels rule encourages innovation in producing the cleanest and greenest transportation fuels. The clean fuels rule will also lead to cleaner, healthier air throughout the state by reducing emissions of other harmful tailpipe pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone precursors.  What’s more, the rule will help increase the market for cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles, giving all of us more climate-friendly choices at the pump and the dealership.

Not surprisingly, Big Oil sees Oregon’s new rule as a threat to its bottom line. It challenged Oregon’s rule in federal district court, arguing that it unconstitutionally discriminates against transportation fuels from other states, even though the rule regulates all fuels even-handedly based on their carbon intensity. The oil industry also argued that Oregon’s rule is preempted by federal law even though the federal government has not regulated the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Oregon Environmental Council and Climate Solutions, represented by Earthjustice, and several other conservation groups intervened to help defend the rule from Big Oil’s attack. 

Chief Federal District Court Judge Aiken dismissed each and every one of the oil industry’s claims in an opinion published last week.  Her ruling came at the very outset of the case—meaning she saw so little merit in Big Oil’s complaints about the rule that she dismissed the litigation at its earliest stages. The court found that Oregon’s rule “rewards all investment in innovative fuel production, irrespective of where that innovation occurs,” and that distinguishing between fuels based on their climate impacts is a legitimate public policy goal rather than impermissible discrimination. The court also held that the rule’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels is entirely consistent with federal law. This is great news for Oregonians who will breathe cleaner air and enjoy cleaner transportation choices as the rule takes effect.

This win in Oregon isn’t just good news for Oregon drivers, though. As fuel producers and automakers develop lower-carbon biofuels for Oregon’s market, those same products will become more available across the country. And as courts reject Big Oil’s attempts to prevent states from enacting meaningful climate pollution reduction measures, it makes it easier for more states to adopt these measures with the knowledge that they’ll be upheld in court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has already rejected many of Big Oil’s attacks on California’s clean fuels rule, and the recent win out of Oregon strengthens the body of law finding that states can move forward with meaningful carbon pollution control measures.  And that is a win for us all. 

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