WASHINGTON—America's drive for energy independence and clean air could threaten orangutans, Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses and the world's largest butterflies. All could be hurt as the rainforests of Southeast Asia are cleared to produce palm oil for use in biodiesel.
It's the downside of the crash effort to rein in global warming.
And the owners of what will be the largest biodiesel plant in the nation—at a deepwater port on Washington state's Pacific coast—are well aware of the environmental consequences of logging and burning some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world to provide the prime ingredient for a much-in-demand clean fuel.
"We recognize there are serious deforestation issues," said John Plaza, the founder of Imperium Renewables, which is building the plant in the Port of Grays Harbor. "It's not OK to clear rainforest to put palm down. But to demonize an entire industry doesn't do anyone any good. We need to solve these issues."
Already, the Europeans are considering banning the importation of palm oil for use in biodiesel, and a Republican leader in the Washington legislature wants to close a loophole in state law and make biofuel production using imported palm oil ineligible for an existing state tax incentive.
Meanwhile, oil palm growers, processors, traders, users and several environmental groups formed the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which is developing regulations to ensure an eco-friendly supply of palm oil. Imperium and other U.S. biodiesel manufacturers have joined the roundtable.
But some remain wary of the roundtable, and even Plaza is frustrated by how long it's taking to develop sustainable standards.
An earlier report prepared for Friends of the Earth, a member of the roundtable, found that the "actual on-the-ground impact of these private-sector initiatives remains negligible at present." The report went on to warn that the palm oil industry may be incapable of self-regulation.
Efforts to police the palm industry come at a time when worldwide demand for palm oil is soaring, driven mostly by what's expected to be a doubling in biodiesel production by the end of next year.
Billions of people around the world use palm oil for cooking, and it's found in thousands of products including soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and detergents, along with such foods as margarine, mayonnaise, salad oil, potato chips and other snacks, confectionaries, cakes, pastry, bread and ice cream.
Existing biodiesel plants and those on the drawing boards will easily "soak up" all of the palm oil currently available, according to a January report from the financial company Credit Suisse.
More than 85 percent of the world's supply of palm oil comes from two nations—Indonesia and Malaysia. The rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are ground zero in the dispute over expanding palm plantations.
The forests are logged and burned to make way for the plantations, at times producing a thick blanket of smog that can cover parts of Southeast Asia for weeks and release millions of tons of greenhouse gases. The plantations also are moving into peat swamps, which are drained. As the peat dries, it also releases tons of carbon dioxide.
The trend is accelerating. Indonesia is already the third-largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, behind the United States and China. By 2015, an area of Indonesia the size of West Virginia is expected to be covered with palm plantations.
"It's absolutely disingenuous to suggest that biodiesel made from palm oil is green or sustainable," said David Waskow, international program director for Friends of the Earth.
Some 8,000 miles away from Indonesia, on the Washington coast, Imperium's plant is 60 percent complete and expected to start producing biodiesel in July. The plant eventually will produce 100 million gallons of fuel a year. The company also is constructing or plans similar sized plants in Hawaii, Argentina and an undisclosed site on the East Coast.
The Grays Harbor plant will convert palm, soy, canola and other feedstocks—or prime ingredient—directly into biodiesel without blending it with any petroleum products.
Plaza said his company hopes to become the largest user of canola oil in the Northwest, though for now it has only one contract with an eastern Washington firm for 1 million gallons annually, or about 1 percent of its total feedstock requirement. A recent Washington State University study suggests that the state's growers could produce 50 million to 100 million gallons of canola a year by planting it in rotation with wheat crops.
"Will it happen next year? No," said Plaza. "In the next five years? Yes."
HOW PALM OIL IS PRODUCED:
The oil palm tree grows best in the wet, tropical climate along the equator.
A palm tree reaches maturity in roughly four years, when it is about seven feet tall. It will eventually reach a height of more than 30 feet and remain economically viable until it is 20 to 25 years old.
A mature palm produces large bunches of fruit that look like plums. Some of these bunches can contain 1,000 to 3,000 individual fruits. Each palm produces several bunches each year.
The fruit must be processed within 24 hours to prevent the buildup of fatty acids.
The outer, fleshy part of the fruit produces the palm oil, which is crushed at a mill to produce a yellow-red liquid.
The crude palm oil is clarified, purified and then sent to a refinery for further processing before being shipped out.
Source: Friends of the Earth
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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