The oil palm tree grows in some of the world's most biodiverse countries, the ones that feature in nature programmes such as David Attenborough's Planet Earth, filled with images of luxuriant growth and rare creatures.
The tree’s high-yielding fruit produces two versatile and cheap oils – palm oil and palm kernel oil – used in foods, cosmetics and cleaning products. Both, too, help to fill growing demand in Europe for biofuels. In December, the United States department of agriculture estimated that global palm oil production for 2016/2017 would be 64.5 million metric tonnes.
The industry behind palm oil continues to be plagued by charges that it has laid waste to natural paradises, encouraged illegal logging and spurred abuse of lowly paid workers.
Between 2000 and 2012, 16 million hectares of virgin Indonesian forest fell, owing in large part to palm-oil plantations. Once the plantation matures, oil is extracted from the fruit, and the kernel husks left behind are sold internationally as biomass to fuel power stations in the West.
Since 2010, semi-State company Bord na Móna has bought more than 150,000 tonnes of these husks – known as palm kernel shells (PKS) – to burn at its Edenderry, Co Offaly power station. So far this year, it has bought 36,000 tonnes. Three-quarters of it came from Indonesia.
In a recent YouTube video, Bord na Móna director of marketing and communications Gerry O’Hagan says that the company’s strategy is based on three pillars: people, profit and planet. Bord na Móna’s “core DNA” is built around the “whole area of sustainability”, he said.
Responding to questions from The Irish Times, Bord na Móna defended its conduct, insisting it obeyed all Irish regulations, even though a universal "single comprehensive certification code" for sustainably produced PKS does not exist.
In a report, however, sent to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in March 2013, Bord na Móna was most concerned not about the emissions risk posed by burning PKS but rather what would happen if it was stopped from doing so.
The report, seen by The Irish Times after a Freedom of Information request, highlights concern about EU plans to review the renewable energy directive and limit the use of biomass from high biodiversity areas.
“Many of the palm oil plantations in southeast Asia are grown on former peatlands,” it stated. “They have very high carbon dioxide emissions . . . and the use of palm kernel shells from these plantations would be ruled out by the sustainability criteria.
“Edenderry therefore faces a considerable risk that PKS, and other agro-industrial residues arising from crops that are grown on organic soils, or that have displaced high biodiversity habitats, will not be permitted in the future.”
In a statement following questions from The Irish Times, the company said that, although details of the new rules are not yet known, it intends to "enforce and adhere to the new EU standards once they are enacted".
Bord na Móna now says it will “cease to source and use” PKS in 2017 once it has “alternative, domestic and imported, sustainable supply chains in place”.
The decision follows a review of the company’s biomass supply chain, and, in future, biomass used will “all be independently verified as sustainably sourced”. The new supply chain will, the company says, meet all national and EU standards.
The statement does not explain how it will find replacement supplies for the Edenderry power plant and warns it will be a “significant challenge”, adding that the company would not be in a position to be making any further comment on this matter.
In a reply to an Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) request in August for documents to show if the shells were bought from sustainable sources, Bord na Móna said this information was provided on a “voluntary basis by third parties” and it would seek consent before releasing.
The company later acknowledged that this information was not in its possession when the request was sent and it only sought to obtain documents from suppliers after the request was made. It was also not able to provide the names of growers and millers, stating that this is due to the operation of the industry where PKS from various mills are stockpiled at ports to be sold to traders.
Bord na Móna also stated that, as PKS is classified as a byproduct of the palm-oil industry, it is not required to purchase sustainable kernel shells.
“PKS are a byproduct of this industry and, as such, no certification is required and in most cases is unavailable,” the reply states. “In the palm oil industry, it is the production of palm oil itself that may be certified and not the residue, ie PKS.”
Bord na Móna was able to provide some sustainability certification, but only for the shipment of PKS to Ireland from Nigeria in 2013, backed up by a letter from the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC).
Responsible for promoting Nigerian non-oil exports, the NEPC said the company which shipped the PKS to Ireland works according to the “sustainable biomass production process”.
“This process does not include child labour, does not degrade the forest, does not involve deforestation and has positively affected the social environment of the local community,” the letter continues.
Prof Matthew Hansen, an expert in mapping changes in land use who has documented Indonesia’s large-scale deforestation, criticised Bord na Móna’s performance as “super lazy” and showing “a lack of goodwill”.
“The industries are just telling us to trust them, ‘trust us, we are doing the right thing’,” the University of Maryland scientist said. “They should really prove it. We know from the satellites that that trust is not warranted.
“If you’re going to fuel green energy, [the] supposed green energy of palm kernels, you should know where they’re coming from,” added Prof Hansen. “They’re looking at the bottom line and not doing due diligence. It’s irresponsible.”
Bord na Móna’s behaviour is quite common, according to Philip Jacobson, a Jakarta-based journalist for Mongabay, a conservation news group which has written extensively about the palm oil industry. However, it could be doing more to find out where its supplies come from: “It sounds like a bit of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement, wherein the company simply imports the kernels, neither knowing nor caring about the origin,” Jacobson added.
High conservation value
An industry-led sustainable standard, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), does exist, though it has been criticised as lacking power to enforce its guidelines, allowing some major multinationals to wrap PR fig leaves around unacceptable practices. Formed in 2004 to encourage industry commitment to protect workers’ rights and “high conservation value” areas such as peatlands, the non-profit organisation says that 20 per cent of global palm-oil production is now RSPO-certified.
Following checks by the RSPO and another global certification programme, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System, none of the traders and shippers used by Bord na Móna were found to be registered as members of either programme.
Danielle Morley, the RSPO’s European director of outreach and engagement, said accredited mills can supply RSPO-certified kernel shells, adding that Irish businesses serious about finding sustainable supplies should join the group.
However, there are questions over whether it can ever make sense to bring palm kernels from the other side of the world to burn in Edenderry in a bid to comply with Ireland’s international obligations to cut CO2 emissions.
Experts warn that the European Union’s policies to use more biomass – such as wood, miscanthus and PKS – are flawed, masking the true emission figures from biomass-generated electricity.
In Ireland’s case, it has committed to ensuring that a minimum of 30 per cent of the fuel burned at Edenderry will be biomass. Currently, it is ahead of target, hitting 37 per cent. In time, Bord na Móna plans to use more than 1.5 million tonnes of biomass per year there. According to the company, emissions of over 1.1 million tonnes of CO2 have already been avoided between 2008 and 2015 by using biomass in place of peat, but critics strongly disagree.
Dr Fionnuala Murphy of University College Dublin is one of them: “There’s a big policy problem with all of this biomass being automatically considered carbon-neutral,” she said, echoing warnings from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Writing in 2011 about the dangers of the accounting rules, the EEA warned that the EU rules to encourage bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, “may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming”.
The EU rules lay down that biomass is carbon-neutral because the carbon lost through burning is recaptured through replanting and growing replacement biomass, but this does not take into account the likes of emissions from land use change and cultivation.
“All of those aspects need to be taken into consideration to ensure that the biomass we’re using actually achieves carbon reductions compared to fossil fuels, rather than increasing emissions elsewhere,” said Dr Murphy, who specialises in full lifecycle analysis of biomass emissions.
Although originally well-intended, the EU carbon accounting “loophole” is exposing countries to an “enormous emissions risk”, according to Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate for energy at the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council.
Bord na Móna says that a well-managed biomass process will lead to emissions reductions of more than 80 per cent, even when using imported biomass. Dr Murphy disagrees. Using the example of PKS imports from Southeast Asia, she found that they produce an average of 256kg of CO2 per gigajoule of energy produced at Edenderry.
Half of the emissions in her own estimate of the real CO2 numbers come not from the burning of the shells, but rather from the C02 emitted by the decision to turn peatlands and forest in Southeast Asia into palm oil plantations.
Bord na Móna’s own C02 figures are “very low” in comparison she found, equal to the value estimated for shipping the shells to Ireland alone.
Meanwhile, said Ms Stashwick, there is the issue of the large subsidies required by biomass-fuelled power stations: “You’re really locking into a perpetual fuel cost and the fuel costs are highly uncertain.”
Subsidies for peat-generated electricity in Ireland through the Public Service Obligation (PSO), a levy charged to all electricity customers to support energy policies, was phased out at Edenderry in December 2015. However, the station is now guaranteed a tariff price until December 2030 through the PSO-funded Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff (REFIT) for electricity generated by co-firing up to 30 per cent of its 128 megawatt installed capacity.
The Commission for Energy Regulation, which determines the PSO levy, says there are no checks to verify the sustainability of imported biomass when it calculates subsidies: “This is a very expensive way to ostensibly shift to renewable electricity,” Ms Stashwick said.
For Dr Murphy, the solution, or part of it, to high C02 emissions from imported biomass is to grow more Irish energy crops such as miscanthus and willow: “We can fully produce indigenous biomass to the gate of the power plant at lower greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
However, Irish biomass production has stalled, despite a significant push from the government through bio-energy establishment schemes. In 2009, three-quarters of all biomass burned at Edenderry was Irish. Two years ago, imports made up half of the biomass used.
Last year, the Government offered farmers more support to grow willow, offering to pay 40 per cent of the costs of planting up to 50 hectares. Just four applications were received for 53 hectares. The scheme is now under review.