When Comparing Alternative Fuel-Vehicle Systems, Life Cycle Assessment Studies Should Consider Trends in Oil Production
Petroleum from unconventional reserves is making an increasingly important contribution to the transportation fuel supply, but is generally more expensive and has greater environmental burdens than petroleum from conventional sources. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) of alternative fuel-vehicle technologies typically consider conventional internal combustion engine vehicles fueled by gasoline produced from the average petroleum slate used in refineries as a baseline. Large-scale deployment of alternative fuel-vehicle technologies will decrease petroleum demand and lead to decreased production at the economic margin (unconventional oil), but this is not considered in most current LCAs. If marginal petroleum resources have larger impacts than average petroleum resources, the environmental benefits of petroleum demand reduction are underestimated by the current modeling approaches. Often, models include some consequential-based impacts (such as indirect land-use change for biofuels), but exclude others (such as avoided unconventional oil production). This approach is inconsistent and does not provide a robust basis for public policy and private investment strategy decisions. We provide an example to illustrate the potential scale of these impacts, but further research is needed to establish and quantify these marginal effects and incorporate them into LCAs of both conventional and alternative fuel-vehicle technologies.