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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Red Lights Palm Oil

Air Date: Week of
An oil palm plantation in Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/ Ryan Woo, CIFOR)

The Environmental Protection says that palm oil based biofuel does not meet renewable fuel standards. Jeremy Martin, senior researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains the agency’s new ruling on the biofuel to host Bruce Gellerman. Martin says that palm oil fuel emits more greenhouse gas emissions than other vegetable oils, and that the creation of palm plantations leads to deforestation.


GELLERMAN: Palm oil comes from the bright orange fruit of the oil palm plant.
It’s high in vitamin E, cheap, and widely used as a cooking oil around the world.
But it’s palm oil's use as biodiesel or as a renewable biofuel that accounts for the rapid expansion of cropland in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As the price of petroleum oil soars, palm oil is increasingly attractive, but the U.S. EPA has ruled that palm oil isn’t good enough to meet federal renewable fuel standards.
The proposed ruling has been called the most important climate change decision of the year. Jeremy Martin evaluates the impacts of biofuels for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Freshly harvested oil palm fruits, Lake Sentarum, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/Tim Cronin, CIFOR)

MARTIN: The renewable fuel standard is an obligation on fuel providers, to people who sell us gasoline and diesel, to blend a certain amount of biofuel into their fuel. And, so, they need to demonstrate to the U.S. EPA that they’ve met their obligations under this policy.

GELLERMAN: So lets pick apart what the EPA recently announced – that this preliminary finding that palm oil falls short of the renewable fuel standard.

MARTIN: Well, the U.S. biofuels policies require that biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels – gasoline and diesel fuel. And what the EPA found was that biofuels made out of palm oil don’t meet a 20 percent reduction compared to diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: So they’ve got to be 20 percent cleaner than diesel fuel?

MARTIN: Yeah, in a full life cycle basis. And so that means the growing and the cultivation and the conversion to fuel, all, adding up all of those parts of the process and comparing them to making diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: So, according to the EPA, what does the palm oil clock in at?

MARTIN: Well, they evaluated two types of fuels. One was 17 percent, and one was 11 percent better than diesel, according to their preliminary finding. Although our analysis suggests that these are optimistic numbers and that actually palm oil based biofuels are likely dirtier than conventional diesel fuel.

GELLERMAN: Dirtier than diesel!

MARTIN: Yes, unfortunately.

GELLERMAN: So, where is it dirtier than diesel?

MARTIN: Probably the most important place where EPA’s analysis fell short is the kind of land that’s been coming into palm oil cultivation. So, palm oil is grown primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia and over the last decade or so, a lot of the land that’s been entering palm oil cultivation has come from peat forests and peat swamps.

And, these forests are cut down and the swamps are drained, and that process releases tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. So, that’s the area where we think EPA’s analysis understated the extent of the problem.

Oil palm seedlings, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr CC/Yayan Indriatmoko, CIFOR)

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s no wonder. Indonesia and Malaysia which are two of the largest palm oil producer say the EPA got the numbers wrong and that your numbers are wrong and they say palm oil is a great biofuel. In fact, they say it reduces by half the greenhouse gas emissions.

MARTIN: Sure, well, I mean I suppose it’s no surprise that they like the fuel. And, I guess I would say that we certainly recognize that palm oil is… it’s a very productive plant, and I think that there’s an opportunity for it to be a really good source of biofuel. The tragedy of it is that, you know, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments aren’t directing palm oil expansion into more suitable areas because there really is an opportunity to clean up palm oil production but, both, because of inadequate policies and even more because of inadequate enforcement of existing policies, that’s just not what’s happening on the ground.

GELLERMAN: Well, palm oil is a very productive and useful crop. It’s a staple food source.

An oil palm plantation. (Photo: Flickr CC/Rainforest Action Network)

MARTIN: Yeah, that’s right.

GELLERMAN: So, if you’re using it as a fuel are you taking it away from the fork?

MARTIN: So, that’s a big part of the impact of biodiesel production is essentially removing food primarily from poor consumers in China and India. When you take palm oil to make biodiesel, about 60 percent of it gets replaced by expansion of palm oil cultivation. And that’s what leads to the deforestation and the extra emissions. You know, the prices go up and the consumers can’t afford to eat as much. And so, that’s not the way, I think, we want to fuel our vehicles in the United States.

GELLERMAN: Let’s say the EPA does have it right, that it’s 17 percent better than diesel. Just for arguments sake. Is something better than nothing?

MARTIN: I mean, you know, these policies like the renewable fuel standards, set thresholds for different fuels and they started at 20 percent. And, actually, it’s possible to do a lot better than 20 percent. There are categories in that policy for 50, for 60 percent, and some of the cellulosic biofuels can do 80, 90, even 100 percent better. And, so, as we try to clean up our fuel supply, we really need to be aiming high and not investing a lot in fuels with limited benefits and lots of downsides. I mean, of course, the 17 percent is only the carbon score. The land, the forests, the peat bogs, the habitat, the impact on the people who live there are also things that one should consider. And, so, on balance, it doesn’t look like this is the solution to our very real challenges we have with our transportation fuel sector.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeremy Martin, thanks a lot!

MARTIN: My pleasure, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Martin is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.



Learn more about Jeremy Martin

Read the Union of Concerned Scientists’ comments to the EPA


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