Fuel From Forests: Biodiesel's Darker Shade of Green

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 4:08 PM EDT

Heather Rogers doesn't do her research by surfing the Internet. For the chapter on biodiesel fuel in her new book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution (Scribner, published Tuesday) she traveled to Borneo, first driving seven hours on rough roads and then motoring two hours up the Kumba River in a traditional river boat. And what she says she found is eye-opening: Production of palm oil (a biodiesel base) destined for the world market -- especially Europe -- that is unsustainable in just about every way.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, this plant-based fuel (which can be used in any diesel vehicle as B20, a blend with 80 percent petroleum diesel) "results in a substantial reduction of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter compared to emissions from diesel fuel." Diesel cars that have been modified can run 100 percent biodiesel. The Obama Administration is requiring production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, and it requires that biodiesel produced in the program meet a goal of 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction from conventional diesel.

According to Rogers, consumption of biodiesel in Europe (where a third of all cars are diesels) is set to triple this year. U.S. biofuel subsidies will top $400 billion between 2006 and 2022, she reports.

But Rogers sees a very dark side of green here, especially in the treatment of the local tribes, called Dayaks, and in the destruction of some of the world's remaining rainforest. Although the law in Indonesia (the world's largest palm oil producer) offers protection for indigenous people, forbids palm oil producers from burning forests and requires them to get permits and issue environmental impact statements, Rogers said in an interview that "corruption is what greases the wheels" and many of the official regulations are ignored.

If palm oil is produced by clearing rainforest, the Institute for Food and Development Policy reports that a ton of palm oil can in effect generate 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions -- 10 times more than petroleum.

Rogers, a senior fellow at the Demos think tank in New York, says in Green Gone Wrong that a company called Duta Palma Nusantara, through a subsidiary, was responsible for clearing 15,000 acres of Dayak tribal rainforest land. One of Duta Palma's major customers is Wilmar International of Singapore, which is 16 percent owned by U.S. agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Don Scott, director of sustainability at the National Biodiesel Board, said that what Rogers describes is likely "a failure of the local political structure." He said that federal guidelines on land use would prevent unsustainably produced biodiesel from being part of the Obama Administration program. Among other things, it has to come from land under cultivation before 2007. "You can't push people off the land and have it qualify," he said. "The EPA has published rules documenting the process any importer has to go through."

There are watchdog groups that certify palm oil production, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, created in 2004 with members in 140 countries and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a catalyst. The Roundtable says 38 million tons of palm oil was produced in 2007, and it concludes, "[I]t is recognized that there are environmental pressures on its expansion to eco-sensitive areas, particularly as oil palm can only be cultivated in tropical areas of Asia, Africa and South America. It is vital that production and use of palm oil must be done in a sustainable manner based on economic, social and environmental viability."

Undoubtedly groups like the Roundtable have made some progress, but Rogers says that some big-producer members "routinely break the criteria that they've set." And she says that virgin forests in the Amazon region, Indonesia and, increasingly, Africa, are still being cleared to make palm oil for "clean fuel."

Photo: Heather Rogers