There’s been a great deal of buzz lately about palm oil — the edible oil largely sourced in Indonesia and Malaysia from the fruit of the oil palm, which can also be used to make biofuels. The Environmental Protection Agency recently refused to designate it as a biofuel, as it does not meet the agency’s greenhouse gas requirements laid out in the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard. Indeed, the release of carbon dioxide from the process of oil palm farming and oil extraction has placed Indonesia as the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and agencies representing Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil interests are lobbying the EPA to reverse its decision on palm oil derived biofuels. Meanwhile the Washington Post cited claims from some opponents that the palm oil biofuel ruling could be the “EPA’s most important climate-change decision of the year.”
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Many oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia sit atop peatlands, where forests are cleared and peat bogs drained to make way for the propagation of the profitable trees. A study by Greenpeace, titled “Cooking the Climate” found that “Every year, 1.8 billion tonnes (Gt) of climate changing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are released by the degradation and burning of Indonesia’s peatlands – 4% of global GHG emissions from less than 0.1% of the land on earth.” And the industry is growing: Physorg reports that Indonesia aims to increase the area for oil palm cultivation from 24 million acres in 2009, to 45 million acres in 2020. If this goes ahead, the National Academy of Sciences calculates that within those eight years, industrialized oil palm areas of Indonesian Borneo will become one of the single leading sources of greenhouse gases.
There is a market for this expansion; US lobbyists claim that as an alternative to cooking oils such as canola, palm oil is a nutritional, healthy, antioxidant filled, trans-fat free option. Moreover, it’s cheap, and used in a huge variety of food and cosmetic items. US-based website One Green Planet notes “If you buy products such as Kellogg’s cereals, Hovis bread, Cadbury’s chocolate bars, Flora margarine, Persil washing powder, or anything from Premier Foods, you are likely contributing to the devastation of the rainforests and all its inhabitants, because in many products palm oil is an unlisted ingredient. It can simply be listed as ‘vegetable oil’.” But this market could be greatly expanded if palm oil were to be accepted as a biofuel for use in the USA.
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As the Washington Post explained “In 2007, Congress expanded a requirement (the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard) for U.S. refineries to blend a certain amount of “renewable fuel” with their gasoline. Ethanol or biofuels could count, but they had to be 20 percent cleaner than traditional fossil fuels.” So in January the EPA released analysis which found that while palm oil derived diesel fuels have lower “lifecycle” emissions than their traditional counterparts, it is only 11-17 percent cleaner, due to the massive deforestation behind its production. The EPA opened its comments period, and the palm oil industry and its lobbyists went wild. One instance, reported by the Hill, found “The American Palm Oil Council, in requesting an extension of the comment period, called EPA’s conclusion “based on faulty data and erroneous assumptions.”” And there are many more like that.
There’s an additional worrying part to this issue; while the palm oil industry scrambles to disprove the EPA, environmental activists have noted that the EPA’s findings may actually be on the conservative side. By a lot. The EPAs calculations are predicated on the belief that of future palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia 9-13 percent would take place on peatlands. The National Academy of Sciences report puts that figure above 50 percent for current oil palm plantations.
Kimberly Carlson (a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who co-authored the report) noted that even placing a moratorium on oil palm expansion will not be enough; “protecting secondary and logged forests, as well as peatlands, is the strategy that most effectively reduces carbon emissions and maintains forest cover.” The EPA’s comment period on their palm oil ruling closed on April 26, and their final decision will determine whether or not the US becomes one of the world’s leading purchasers of this less than clean biofuel.