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.