The Portland City Council passed an update to the City’s Renewable Fuel Standard on Dec.7, 2022. This update requires that by 2030 all diesel fuel sold in the city of Portland must be 99% renewable. The update was written by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), with input from the public. 

Diesel fuel is most commonly used in trucks, trains, barges, buses, and construction equipment, but it is also used in some cars. There are many different ways to produce diesel fuels, resulting in many different types, though the one that is most commonly used is petroleum diesel. 

Petroleum diesel is diesel derived from crude oil. It has serious environmental and public health impacts. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Exposure to diesel exhaust can lead to serious health conditions like asthma and respiratory illnesses and can worsen existing heart and lung disease, especially in children and the elderly.” Diesel exhaust is also carcinogenic, or capable of causing cancer, to humans. It is a major global warming contributor as well. Petroleum diesel exhaust emits a significant amount of black carbon. Black carbon is an air pollutant that the EPA considers a global environmental problem. 

There are other fuels that work in diesel engines that are less damaging to the environment and human health, including biodiesel and renewable diesel. These two alternatives will be used to create the 99% renewable diesel blend. 

Some concern has been raised that the supply of these alternative fuels will not be enough to account for the city’s need if it makes the shift to requiring more renewable fuel. As Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) Climate & Transportation Campaign Manager Jacqui Treiger says, “one of the concerns [about the Renewable Fuel Standard update] has been: Is this realistic? Is it doable? And the answer is yes.” BPS states that, “The consensus among Oregon-based fuel industry stakeholders is that biodiesel is readily available and competitively priced today.”

However, that is not the case with renewable diesel. While renewable diesel is not yet readily available, the City has hopes that this policy change will be a market signal that renewable diesel is a product that will have demand. Additionally, for those concerned about fuel prices, the City specifies that they do not expect the retail price of diesel to increase with the progressive increase of required renewable fuel. 

This policy change has also had a mixed reception in the environmental advocacy community. Some advocates have expressed concern that biofuels, while more environmentally friendly, have similar risks to petroleum diesel in terms of production, storage, and transportation. Others take the position that even small steps forward are steps in the right direction. Treiger recognizes that is one of those small steps but adds that, “the climate crisis is here, we need to be doing everything we can to [reduce] our carbon impact as soon as possible.” She explains that while every piece of legislation has downsides, this update will reduce carbon emissions and dangerous air pollution.

The push for changing transportation policy and legislation doesn’t stop here. “[The Renewable Fuel Standard update] is one small piece of the puzzle … helping us clean up as we get to a decarbonized future,” Treiger explains. “We can, must and will get off oil. We need all solutions—more biking, walking, transit, carpooling, cleaner vehicles and fuels and better transportation system design.” 

For those who are interested in getting involved in climate activism but are unsure how to, Treiger suggests contacting elected officials, connecting with organizations that do climate work and signing up for their action alerts. She also recommends talking to family to raise awareness about climate change.

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