EPA to Rule on Whether Greenhouse-Gas-Emitting Palm Oils Can be Used as Biofuel

by , 04/30/12

palm oil, deforestation indonesia, peat lands, peat drainage, farming environmentPalm Oil photo from Shutterstock

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.”

palm oil, oil palm plantation, oil palm environment, indonesia palm oil, peat landsImage (cc) a_rtaim on Flickr

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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