Palm oil industry adds lobbying muscle in EPA climate battle

Here’s why they’re adding firepower: EPA released an analysis in January showing that diesel fuels made from palm oil don’t qualify under the 2007 law that greatly expanded the volume of biofuels that must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

The palm oil industry is vigorously attacking EPA’s conclusion, alleging it's based on inaccurate assumptions and data. It doesn't want it used to disqualify palm oil-based fuels from the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).

“[Holland & Knight] was retained by these three entities to help them navigate and participate in a complicated regulatory process and ensure there is a thorough review before EPA makes a critical decision that affects their businesses,” said Beth Viola, a senior policy adviser with Holland & Knight, in a statement.

The 2007 law requires that biofuels have “lifecycle” carbon emissions — that is, emissions from crop production, refining, transport and use — at least 20 percent lower than traditional gasoline and diesel.

EPA concluded that palm oil-based fuels have lower emissions, but the difference isn’t big enough to meet the RFS.

The draft analysis estimated that two types of palm-oil-based diesel fuels had greenhouse gas emissions that were 11 percent and 17 percent lower than traditional diesel.

Palm oil — which is also used in foods and other products — is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees, and the growth of palm plantations has been a driver of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, agree that palm oil-based fuels shouldn’t make the cut and say they are actually much worse than traditional fossil fuels from a climate standpoint (as opposed to EPA’s view that they’re slightly better).

They say the agency is low-balling the emissions for several reasons, such as underestimating the extent to which palm oil plantation expansions are leading to the clearing of carbon-rich peatlands.

EPA’s finding is part of a wider controversy over the climate benefits of bio-energy. Analyzing the emissions associated with biofuels is complex because it must address so-called land use changes — including deforestation — stemming from crop cultivation.

—This post was updated at 1:34 p.m. and 3:02 p.m.