As fears of global warming continue to rise with gas prices, both corporations and environmentalists are looking into alternative fuel sources. Now, businesses abroad plan to make biodiesel from palm oil, a substance found in common household items like cookies, shampoo, and margarine. Toyota Motor Corp. announced in May that it will partner with Japan’s Nippon Oil Corp. to develop biodiesel from palm oil, and the Malaysian government approved 54 projects this year alone to create B100, a biodiesel based from 100 percent palm oil, the country’s main export.

But while biofuels are cleaner-burning and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than regular fuel, some environmentalists believe the costs of palm oil-based biodiesel may outweigh the benefits.

The problem in Malaysia and Indonesia, where more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced, is that in most cases, rainforest areas are completely cleared to create oil palm plantations. According to a 2005 Friends of the Earth report, oil palm plantations have been responsible for about 87 percent of the rainforest deforestation in Malaysia.

Not only does this practice wreak havoc on the countries’ megafauna (such as orangutans, Sumatran rhinos and tigers, Asian elephants, gibbons, and tapirs), it also causes significant pollution. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year (about 1.6 billion tons) comes from deforestation.

“When you turn a product into a world commodity, you get corporations involved,” says Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief. “Originally palm oil was collected by hand, but once you get corporations involved, you end up having forest clearing and mass plantations.”

Corporations first clear the land for its lucrative timber. Then they burn everything that’s left on the land, such as shrubs, stumps, and peat soil, which can smolder for three to four months before it’s finally extinguished, says Michelle Desilets, director of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, UK. Tree-felling combined with the burning creates a haze above the forest and releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the same global warming that biofuels are supposed to reduce.

Since Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, clearing these areas poses serious threat to countless species of plants and animals. Right now palm oil is mostly used in food products. But if the demand for palm oil-based biodiesel increases, the oil palm business will certainly expand, creating more deforestation and species destruction.

But despite the huge environmental impact palm oil-based biodiesel has, businesses interested in bottom-line dollars see a market for it.

“Palm oil is the cheapest source for biofuel, and, as we know, in the marketplace the cheapest wins,” said Shannon Coughlin, program director for Rainforest Action Network, in an e-mail.

Leland Tong, an advisor to the National Biodiesel Board, says though palm oil is not grown domestically and will not lessen dependence on foreign fuel sources, it does offer some perks as far as biofuels go. It has a higher freezing point than regular fuel alone; it’s renewable; and it’s similar in efficiency to other biofuel sources such as soybean oil.

Rainforest advocates suggest some more environmentally responsible alternatives to making biodiesel from palm oil. Desilets asserts that if there must be palm oil plantations, then they should be planted on already degraded land (such as rainforest that has been logged, but not cleared) to protect other high-conservation areas. Keating insists that the only solution is to lessen our dependence on fuel. And Coughlin suggests making ethanol from agricultural waste and switchgrass so that no land has to be cleared. But all agree that the current method of producing palm oil-based biodiesel is not the answer to our energy needs.

“We know that an increased market for palm oil imports will accelerate rather than stop climate change,” said Coughlin in an e-mail. “It’s crazy. We need to break the addiction rather than keep feeding it.”

Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006

The problem with palm
Using palm oil to make biodiesel may cause more trouble than it prevents.