Scientists or Lobbyists: Who do You Trust to Act in the Best Interests of our World’s Rainforests?

By Rainforest Action Network
Who Will the EPA Trust: Scientists or Industry Lobbyists?
Who Will the EPA Trust: Scientists or Industry Lobbyists?

In what has been called the biggest climate decision of the year for the Obama Administration, the Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil industries are flexing their lobbying muscle to overturn a crucial, science-based decision by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In January of this year, the EPA issued an initial finding that biofuels made from palm oil do not qualify for subsidies under the agency’s 2007 renewable fuels mandate. While it was found to have lower life-cycle emissions than conventional gasoline and diesel, palm oil came up short of the 20 percent reduction in total emissions required for inclusion in the new biofuel blends.

While the public comment period regarding its decision is now officially closed, the EPA remains under serious and mounting pressure to reverse its findings from high-powered lobbying groups hired by the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Chinese palm oil industries. These shadowy foreign interests are joined by the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other right-wing organizations fundamentally opposed to the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Among the most disturbing developments in this lobby assault is the fact that these high-paid industry lobbyists are leveraging their political influence to place their clients’ profit-driven agenda over the conclusions of science. For example, many of the comments submitted to the EPA came from the palm oil industry itself — including palm oil giants Cargill and Wilmar, which claim that the EPA’s estimates of palm oil-related emissions are seriously exaggerated.

Scientists, however, assert that even the EPA’s proposed findings are overly conservative and that palm oil fuels are likely no better for the climate than conventional fuels at all. The New York Times Green Blog reported on a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that used socioeconomic surveys, high-resolution satellite imagery and carbon mapping to plot past and future patterns of land conversion for a representative region in Indonesia. The study found that half of all palm oil in the study area is being grown on extremely carbon-rich peatlands, a number that sharply contrasts with the EPA’s estimate of only 13 percent for all of Indonesia.

As the NYT blog states: “Indonesia ranks right behind the United States and China in the lineup of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters. It’s not because of smokestacks or freeways, but massive deforestation starting in the 1990s — driven in large part by the expansion of plantations for palm oil, an edible vegetable oil used in cookies, crackers, soap and European diesel fuel.”

The EPA’s decision is incredibly important because it will influence how governments around the world think about palm oil, particularly in Europe. As Ezra Klein explains in the Washington Post, the biggest market for palm oil-based fuels is still the European Union, which has a law requiring 10 percent of all transportation fuel to come from renewable sources by 2020. The problem with this rule is that the European Union never considered the indirect deforestation effects from biofuels. The science on this only really emerged in 2008 or so, after the E.U. law was crafted.

As for the US, the EPA’s decision could also determine the extent to which the United States becomes a major palm oil buyer. According to trade data, consumption of palm oil in the United States is growing at a much faster rate than anywhere else in the world, so it makes sense that industry reps from Indonesia and Malaysia are concerned about protecting palm oil’s reputation here. So concerned, in fact, that the Malaysian Prime Minister’s wife met with the Girl Scouts CEO last week. But what isn’t so clear in my mind is how an industry that is accused of gross environmental and social abuses can justify hiring the most expensive lobby group to paint palm oil green without looking desperate.

As my colleague Laurel Sutherlin said in a press conference: “It is a disturbing development to see a politically motivated group like ALEC join forces with the shadowy palm oil lobby from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as with huge agribusiness companies Cargill and Wilmar, to pressure the EPA to overturn what is supposed to be a science-based decision made in the best interests of the American people. The question the EPA is tasked with answering is whether biofuels made with palm oil meet our nation’s greenhouse gas requirements as a renewable fuel. The stark reality of the impacts of palm oil plantation expansion in Southeast Asia, where nearly 90% of the world’s palm oil comes from, makes it clear that it does not.”

Stay tuned to find out how RAN is actively working to influence the EPA to uphold the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the climate.