Rob Parsons

Palm Reading

Why Malaysian representatives are meeting with Hawaiian Electric, state officials and others

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
December 6, 2007

Over the past year or so, critical discussions have taken place worldwide on how biofuels may help wean our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But scientific evidence and scholarly dissertations are increasingly indicating that the widespread speculative rush towards crops for ethanol and biodiesel production is nothing more than a rush to fool's gold.

Last week, representatives of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) met in Honolulu with officials from Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the state Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT) and various environmental groups. Concurrently, the Malaysian ambassador sat down with Governor Linda Lingle, who also traveled to neighboring Indonesia earlier this year to establish a joint military and disaster preparedness pact.

Fruit of the African oil palm tree yields the highest amount per acre of vegetable oil-used in thousands of food, cosmetic products and, more recently, for converting to biodiesel. Malaysia and Indonesia are the top two palm oil producers on the world, which has hit record prices in recent months, mirroring crude oil's steady climb towards $100 per barrel. In 2006, Malaysia's revenue from palm oil exports topped $31 billion.

But palm oil production has exacted a devastating toll on clearing equatorial virgin rainforests, threatening habitat of endangered species such as the orangutan, displacing indigenous peoples and actually increasing carbon emissions because of slash and burn deforestation and the draining of carbon-rich peat bogs.

Friends of the Earth estimates that new palm oil plantations caused 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia from 1985 to 2000. In Indonesia, the amount of land devoted to palm oil has increased 118 percent in the last eight years.

In the Apr. 1 Associated Press story "Scientists Weigh Downside of Palm Oil," a climate scientist with Wetlands International calculated that the amount of emissions from drained peat bogs and fires lit to clear forests for plantations account for eight percent of the world's total carbon emissions. His conclusion: "As a biofuel, it's a failure."

So, how is it that Hawaiian Electric didn't get the memo, and is forging ahead with plans to run generators on Oahu and Maui burning biodiesel refined from Southeast Asian palm oil? Probably because it's one of the cheapest alternatives to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as required by Act 234 of the state Legislature.

But it's a choice that has essentially been made behind closed doors, far from public input which would likely have rallied for local, sustainable choices for renewable energy-not one linked with an "eco-nightmare."

Back in February, Maui Electric Company (MECO) officials announced a project with a new company, BlueEarth Biodiesel, LLC, to build a huge 120-million-gallon-per year refinery at their Maui Waena site on Pulehu Road. The news surprised many, who raised questions about its size, scope, fuel "feedstock" source and how a company with no track record could have been hand picked without following state procurement laws.

Maui's homegrown company, Pacific Biodiesel, was left out on the street with no opportunity to bid. As members of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, they questioned the likelihood that local production of biofuel crops could ever come near the capacity of supplying BlueEarth, as well as another large refinery planned for Oahu.

Imperium Renewables just opened the largest biodiesel facility in the U.S. at Grays Harbor, Washington. It's capable of producing 100 million gallons yearly. They are planning a refinery equal in size, to be constructed on state land at Kalaeloa, BarberPoint Harbor. Two weeks ago, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved Imperium's 30-year lease on their harbor land, over objections by Life of the Land, Sierra Club-Maui, Maui Tomorrow and lawyers from U.S. Biodiesel, who stated that state law requires such a lease be put up for public auction.

To supply both refineries, Imperium intends to import Malaysian palm oil, according to documents filed as part of their overall permitting. Imperium representatives just returned from Kuala Lumpur, where they attended, along with a HECO representative, the Fifth Roundtable meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is an international group that's attempting to address production and procurement standards for the industry.

Not long ago I got a call that there was an opportunity to meet with Malaysian representatives in Honolulu, and made my flight reservations. An invitation had been extended to Sierra Club Director Jeff Mikulina (who declined) and Mark Fox, who manages external affairs for The Nature Conservancy-Hawai`i. Both Mikulina and Fox are members of the recently formed state Green House Gas Emissions Reduction Task Force.

McNeil-Wilson Communications arranged the meeting on behalf of Imperium Renewables. McNeil-Wilson is the same Honolulu public relations firm hired by Hawai`i Superferry.

I entered the downstairs conference room of The Nature Conservancy's office in Chinatown. I was greeted by Fox, Thiaga "Tiger" Thiagarajan of the MPOB's American Regional Office in Washington D.C. and M. Salleh Kassim, Executive Director of the American Palm Oil Council. Joining the discussion were Henry Curtis and Kat Brady from Life of the Land, and Dr. Stephanie Fried, senior scientist with Environmental Defense-Hawai`i.

After introductions, our Asian guests explained that they were in Hawai`i to promote palm oil, and had met with HECO, DBEDT and Imperium. They explained their country's history of production, and the roles of the various agencies to control and regulate palm oil production and trade. Both also noted that they recently spent time in Europe. There, widespread concerns over palm oil production led to the cancellation of some plans to use it for biodiesel fuel.

In the U.K., activists filed a false advertising lawsuit against MPOB claims that there is no open burning in Malaysia to clear land for palm plantations. And when we asked how much land has been cleared for palm oil plantations over the past 20 years, Kassim said there have been "zero burns."

In fact, satellite photos since 1997 have tracked forest fire hotspots, and are readily available on Internet sites. At times, photos have recorded thousands of fires burning in Indonesia and Malaysia, resulting in a choking haze covering the entire region.

We asked about expansion plans, given the increasing demand for palm oil, especially from China and India. They said most expansion has taken place on former rubber plantations, not by clearing virgin forests. There are "some" plans to expand in Sarawak, the Malaysian portion on the north side of the island of Borneo, "but not so fast because the soil is not so good."

But a book just issued by the Forest Peoples Programme and Sawit (Malay for oil palm) Watch called Land is Life: Land rights and oil palm development in Sarawak says Malaysian production is in rapid expansion, with exports projected for as much as $35 billion. The Malaysian government is encouraging private sector expansion on "Native Customary Lands" to double production to one million hectares over the next three years. A hectare is equivalent to roughly 2.5 acres.

Asked if there were any problems relating to indigenous people, Tiger said there were "no problems at all."

Yet Land is Life reports more than 40 cases in Sarawak courts relating to palm oil expansion disputes over native customary rights to land. "Our lands and properties are taken behind our backs and issued to others," Tua Rumah, an Iban Village Chief said. "This is sheer robbery."

Alang Ju, Penang Village Chief of Long Singu, added that, "The development of plantations in this area will definitely result in the destruction and loss of the resources on our lands which we depend on for our survival. Our people were born here, brought up and nurtured in this area, and we want to continue to live on this land and surrounding forests."

Wildlife and Rainforest action groups worldwide have also decried the impact of palm oil on remaining habitat for endangered species such as the orangutan, Javan rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger and many others. Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace are among several organizations with active campaigns against palm oil production.

Wailuku attorney Lance Collins just returned from visiting family in the Philippines. He said that in that country, the issue is framed as food vs. fuel.

"The effects of taking cropland out of food production for electricity generating are simple: widespread starvation and irreparable pollution," Collins said. "It is simply immoral to use food for fuel in a world plagued by hunger and starvation."

Sierra Club Maui Chair Lance Holter echoed the long list of transgressions connected with palm oil production. "Why is HECO still banking on importing foreign oil to run their diesel fuel-oil electric generators when there are all kinds of proven sustainable alternatives?" Holter asked. "Their insistence upon using this source is contrary to the basic premise of good business and violates public trust and the environment as well."

As a Fulbright scholar doing doctorate research, Dr. Fried of Environmental Defense-Hawai`i spent two years in Kalimantan, Borneo and another three years in Indonesia. During our meeting, she broke into fluent Malay at one point, surprising our guests.

She was also close to Paramount Chief Pak Digit, whom she said was the patriarch of her hana`i family while she was there. Chief Dingit fought valiantly to protect indigenous rights and forests.

Coincidentally, our meeting took place on the second anniversary of his death. At the ceremony, a statement was read about the chief's global influence, and the village also heard about the campaign in Hawai`i to oppose palm oil importation.

Here in Hawai`i, with our own fights for the environment against encroaching development and for indigenous lands and rights, I'd call that totally chicken skin.