Glenn Hurowitz has an important piece at Think Progress noting that Obama’s decision on whether palm oil should be included in the Renewable Fuel Standard will be the most important decision he makes on climate change this year. He’s probably right and I absolutely oppose the idea of palm oil as renewable fuel. Basically, Malaysia and Indonesia have decided to chop down their entire remaining rain forest to convert to palm oil plantations. We frequently hear about Latin American rainforest being lost for cattle ranches and this is the Asian version. Not only does this make palm oil dirty because of the burning of the rainforests, but you also have the destruction of plant and animal species and their replacement with monocultures. Plus the palm oil industry is a corrupt and immoral as petroleum could ever dream:
Industry giant Wilmar, which has been caught on film cutting down forests in orangutan habitat and expelling indigenous people from their lands, and was cut off from World Bank funding for its abuses, has hired a raft of DC lobbyists in its attempt to pressure the White House to distort the science. The industry’s effort has been boosted by $7.7 million that the Malaysian government authorized last year to spend on foreign palm oil “public relations” work, intended to spread the false idea that palm oil is a clean source of energy. This flood of foreign cash may explain why right wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation are suddenly so interested in forcing American motorists to use palm oil grown in Indonesia under the Renewable Fuels Standard – a standard they have virulently opposed for other biofuels but have suddenly embraced for palm oil. Hmm.
In 2006, I was in Malaysia for a couple of weeks. While I love Malaysia, I found the palm oil plantations incredibly depressing. Riding buses through what was, until a few years before, lush rainforest but was now palm oil plantations really brought home the environmental transformation of agricultural globalization. There’s a lot of money to be made in palm oil; more importantly for Malaysia, that money is concentrated among the elite class. They could diversify into tourism, go the Costa Rica route, but that would neither fulfill the developmentalist dreams of the Malaysian elite nor line their pockets.
Palm oil as a renewable fuel doesn’t make sense from a standpoint of sustainability or environmental stewardship. It does make sense from the standpoint of massive corruption and the concentration of power in the developing world in the hands of a very few local elites and international investors. President Obama will choose where the United States stands on this question.