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Biofuels may endanger rainforests

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.

And the owners of what will be the largest biodiesel plant in the nation – at a deepwater port on Washington state’s coast – are well aware of the environmental consequences of logging and burning some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world.

“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.”

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 a state tax incentive.

Meanwhile, oil palm growers, processors, traders, users and environmental groups formed the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which is developing regulations to ensure an eco-friendly supply of palm oil.

But some remain wary of the roundtable, and even Plaza is frustrated by how long it’s taking to develop sustainable standards.

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, and foods such as margarine, mayonnaise, salad oil, potato chips and other snacks.

Existing biodiesel plants and those on the drawing boards will easily soak up all of the palm oil currently available.

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 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.

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 Grays Harbor plant will convert palm, soy, canola and other feedstocks 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.”