US Report Casts Doubt On Palm Fuel Benefits

Source : Jakarta Globe – February 08, 2012
By Fidelis E. Satriastanti

Indonesia has come under greater scrutiny over its policy to encourage palm oil development, following a report by US authorities that fuels derived from the commodity were not as environmentally friendly as initially believed.

Last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency put out a notice that palm oil-derived biofuels such as biodiesel and renewable diesel fell short of its threshold for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings of 20 percent compared to regular diesel.

Biodiesel was found to cut GHG emissions by just 17 percent of the life cycle of its production and combustion, while renewable biodiesel rated 11 percent.

“Our analysis of palm oil biofuels … considers new data for Indonesia and Malaysia, where close to 90 percent of world palm oil is currently produced,” the notice said.

It highlighted two ways in which the palm oil production process was contributing to GHG emissions.

“For example, palm oil production produces wastewater effluent that eventually decomposes, creating methane, a GHG with a high global warming potential,” it said. “Another key factor is the expected expansion of palm plantations onto land with carbon-rich peat soils which would lead to significant releases of GHGs to the atmosphere.”

Meine van Noordwijk, chief science adviser at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), said if more than 10 percent of palm oil originated from peatland plantations, then the EPA’s standards could not be met, regardless of all other efforts.

In 2009, 22 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations were on peat soil, while in Malaysia the figure was 13 percent, according to the EPA.

Van Noordwijk also said a lifecycle assessment of any biofuel needs to look at the carbon debts created by conversion of forests to plantations, the emissions associated with production, and emissions associated with processing and transport.

“In the case of oil palm, all three contribute to the overall effect,” he said.

“If forests with more than 40 tons per hectare of carbon stock are cleared, there will be a carbon debt. If peatlands are used, there will be continuous emissions that are higher than the carbon sequestered in palm oil production, and if the processing units do not trap the methane from the mill effluent, emissions can be high.”

Van Noordwijk cited a study carried out by ICRAF with the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission (IPOC) showing that companies that avoided the conversion of high carbon stock forest and did not use peat soil could meet the EPA’s target and the more stringent requirements set by the European Union.

In 2008 the EU banned biofuels from palm oil grown from deforesting tropical forests peatlands.

Van Noordwijk also pointed out that the carbon sequestered from planting oil palms did not make up for clearing forests and peatlands for the plantations.

The palms themselves, he said, represent around 80 tons of carbon sequestered per hectare over a 25-year period, while the fruits harvested hold the equivalent of 10 tons of CO2 a year.

However, the draining of peat swamps releases 60 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.

“With more careful drainage practices it can be brought back to say 40 tons of CO2, which is still a lot compared to the 10 tons of CO2 per hectare per year that is harvested,” he said. “So, you gain 10 tons of CO2 from the plants, however, you release 60 tons of CO2 and 40 tons of CO2 if drainage is good. You’d need to pay the carbon debt.”

Abetnego Tarigan, director of Sawit Watch, an industry watchdog, said the government should pursue low-carbon development.

“How do we maximize existing areas rather than open new ones?” he said. “How do we optimize transportation efficiency, soil management and so on.”

Gamal Nasir, the Agriculture Ministry’s director general for plantations, denied that palm oil biofuels were ineffective in helping reduce GHG emissions.

“That’s not true. It can reduce emissions,” he said, adding that he minister would issue an official statement following a meeting on Monday to discuss the EPA’s report.

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