Obama’s Biggest Climate Decision Of The Year May Be … Palm Oil?

Photo Credit: Aaron Fishman

by Glenn Hurowitz

The Obama administration is poised to make one of the biggest climate policy decisions of its entire administration – and it’s not about coal, oil, or gas, but rainforests.  EPA is deciding whether or not palm oil should be included in the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that American motorists use 36 billion gallons of biofuel in their cars and trucks by 2022. In order to qualify for inclusion, palm oil would have to cut greenhouse gas pollution by at least 20 percent compared to gasoline.

Which means that it should be an easy call: Of all the biofuels, palm oil causes by far the most pollution because much of it is grown by clearing and burning dense rainforests, many of them on carbon-rich peatland, to make room for plantations. That widespread deforestation has made Indonesia the world’s third biggest global warming polluter, just behind China and the United States.

EPA recognized some of the problems with palm oil in its draft finding that palm oil does not qualify for inclusion in the RFS … but just barely. However, a close look at EPA’s draft finds that it used old and deeply flawed data to systematically underestimate the emissions from palm oil. For instance, the analysis draws on data on plantation expansion that ends in 2003 – not taking into account how much worse the palm oil industry has gotten since then.

Newer studies from the National Academies of Science and the International Council on Clean Transportation find that the palm oil industry’s carbon footprint just keeps getting bigger:

The new study used satellite imagery to map the encroachment of oil palm plantations onto peatlands from 1990 to 2000, from 2000 to 2007, and finally 2007 to 2010. Despite increasing awareness of climate change in that period, the rate of peat destruction was higher in this last 3 year period than ever before. “Everywhere we looked, the drainage of peat to plant palm oil is increasing, “ said Dr. Chris Malins of the International Council on Clean Transportation, one of the organizations that carried out the study. “In the Sarawak province in Malaysian Borneo, for instance, based on the last 3 years we would expect over 80% of future palm expansion to be at the expense of peat.” The findings are echoed in a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Kim Carlson et al., which found that from 2008-2011 69% of palm oil conversion in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan occurred at the expense of peat, even despite the introduction of a ‘moratorium’ in 2011.

All in all, this deforestation means that running a car on palm oil produces a lot more greenhouse gases than running it on Canadian tar sands. Indeed, a study in Science found that it would take palm oil biofuels grown on peatland a whopping 423 years to pay back the carbon debt created through land clearance. In other words, a palm plantation cleared in the year 1600 that produced biofuels for the last several centuries would still not have displaced enough oil to make up for the amount of carbon released when the land was cleared. Palm oil can make even dirty oil look green.

You can see devastation wherever the palm oil industry operates: Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, Peru and increasingly the massive rainforests of the Congo River Basin in Africa, which are increasingly being invaded and colonized by Asian palm oil companies that buy off local governments and clear massive areas of forest – with local communities suffering the consequences. I saw it for myself several weeks ago on an aerial survey I conducted of Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo – for miles out to the horizon, we saw bulldozers clearing vast new palm oil plantations in an arc of deforestation racing towards the still-protected Sebangau National Park, an area of prime orangutan habitat.

The palm oil industry is trying to get EPA to shut its eyes to what’s happening on the ground. Apparently not content with corrupting the political process in Southeast Asia, the industry is working to do the same in America (Washington is plenty corrupt already without the palm oil kings making it worse, thank you very much).

Industry giant Wilmar, which has been caught on film cutting down forests in orangutan habitat and expelling indigenous people from their lands, and was cut off from World Bank funding for its abuses, has hired a raft of DC lobbyists in its attempt to pressure the White House to distort the science. The industry’s effort has been boosted by $7.7 million that the Malaysian government authorized last year to spend on foreign palm oil “public relations” work, intended to spread the false idea that palm oil is a clean source of energy. This flood of foreign cash may explain why right wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation are suddenly so interested in forcing American motorists to use palm oil grown in Indonesia under the Renewable Fuels Standard – a standard they have virulently opposed for other biofuels but have suddenly embraced for palm oil. Hmm.

There’s a lot at stake: Europe is looking closely at the EPA’s finding as a precedent for its determination on its own biofuels standard. That determination will decide the fate of approximately 69,000 square kilometers of forests and other ecosystems – an area bigger than the entire state of West Virginia. If they don’t get the decision right, it will produce the amount of carbon pollution equivalent to adding 12 to 26 million cars to the roads.

American motorists don’t want the government to force them to use this ultra-dirty fuel that’s driving mass deforestation, carbon pollution, and species extinction, and often produced under brutal working conditions, including slave and child labor. So long as EPA and the White House find the strength to resist the false messaging of the Asian palm oil industry – and stick to the real facts and grim science on palm oil – we can chalk this decision up as one of the Obama administration’s biggest climate achievements.

Glenn Hurowitz is the Director of Campaigns at Climate Advisers, a mission-driven consulting firm, where he works with a coalition of environmental and scientific groups working to conserve rainforests. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.

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11 Responses to Obama’s Biggest Climate Decision Of The Year May Be … Palm Oil?

  1. John Tucker says:

    Palm oil specifically and large implementation of biofuels in general as they are produced now are not a valid answer to ecological destruction. The energy to production use footprint as well as the competition with food production are unacceptable. No matter how lofty the visions of sustainability my be.

    The EPA should have been already in position to handle this but they have been subverted by those pushing the biofuels industry here.

  2. M Tucker says:

    Don’t expect EPA to make the right choice. They are just barely adequate at protecting the environment in some areas and woefully inadequate in many others. The US policy makers are more likely to make the wrong decision and we are just stupidly lucky that our air and water is not as bad as China’s and we have not seen our rivers catch fire lately. They subsidize corn ethanol don’t they?

  3. Josh says:

    Is there an option in consideration to only permit credibly certified sustainable palm oil?

  4. Dan Ives says:

    “So long as EPA and the White House find the strength to resist the false messaging of the Asian palm oil industry – and stick to the real facts and grim science on palm oil – we can chalk this decision up as one of the Obama administration’s biggest climate achievements.”

    So it would be one of Obama’s “biggest climate achievements” if he allows business to continue as usual as opposed to making the problem far worse by supporting palm oil?

    Guess what. Today I decided not put my arm in a meat grinder. It was one of the biggest achievements towards good health I’ve ever… well, achieved.

    Talk about low expectations.

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You can talk about low expectations Dan but the destruction of rainforests in the Southern hemisphere is just devastating and has to be stopped. There is more than one decision to be made in the process of attempting to restore the health of our planet, ME

  6. Dan Ives says:

    “…the destruction of rainforests in the Southern hemisphere is just devastating and has to be stopped. There is more than one decision to be made in the process of attempting to restore the health of our planet.”

    I agree with that fully.

    My comment meant to address this aspect of the article: It says a lot about our discourse and the state of things when we proclaim someone has made a “big achievement” by simply not doing us great harm. It’s disgusting how low some people set the bar. It’s absurd and pathetic.

    That’s my only problem with this article.

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Emissions from deforestation are the most corrupt and politically charged of any category, including in IPCC. I urge readers to look into it by studying IPCC country emissions reports and Forestry Conferences, available on the Web. The omissions and weird data are obvious.

    It’s easy to bash the oil companies, but people have been worn down by the timber companies, even though they are actually worse. Nowadays the Big Green organizations pretty much bend over and let them win, since they figure they’re going to destroy forests anyway. Companies like GP and Weyerhauser pioneered greenwashing and influence peddling. The oil companies are still learning from them.

  8. It is becoming an ever growing issue. But it is important to ensure that palm oil is sustainable. The cost of fuel is raising and oil supplies are reducing.

    It is difficult, to find safe and sustainable resources.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    The rallying cry against the destruction of peat lands and related carbon emissions is very important, yet it is only the enlightened self-interest component of why mass-produced palm oil is bad.

    I’m horrified by what I have seen in the indie press of human rights abuses of indigenous peoples displaced by the palm oil plantations. The indigenous peoples are all too aware that their lives and culture depended on the biological diversity and stability of habitats that have been eradicated.

    As we’ve seen with other imports to the US, there is an unconsciously schizoid attitude in the US that assumes environmental and human rights issues somehow ‘stayed in Vegas’ or Papua-New Guinea or Nigeria or Paraguay, or Canada, or China, or elsewhere. It’s a tough job for the US EPA to be the US national conscience on the origins of imports.

    Please read product labels. Many food and personal care products contain palm oil products. These products were the developed end-uses of palm oil before the mega-plantations had the volume-capability to sell palm oil as motor fuel.

    I avoid eating or soaping up with stuff containing palm oil, palmitic acid, palmitate, or other by-products, although I have yet to memorize all those ingredients that have names that don’t include the “palm” root word. There are websites with lists of the ingredients.

  10. This is a global tragedy- not just for the incredible species facing extinction and the displaced indigenous people but for all of us as we all need these rainforests to survive on this magnificent planet. Let’s not sell out our planet for this cheap, unhealthy & unenvironmental palm oil!

  11. DGuerra says:

    Cheapness in the energy area, equates with unsustainability. The price of fossile fuels must indeed rise so that sustainable sources of energy become the most economically smart option. Because that’s what really drives the world, prices. And as sustainable energy production becomes more widespread, prices become lower as well. By “sustainable” I mean solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy.