Malaysians pump up palm-oil biodiesel benefits

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
Unhappy orangutan

As pressure mounts against the palm-oil industry and its unsustainable practices, Malaysia is ramping up its official rhetoric to support its aspirations to become a major biofuel supplier.

On Monday state-owned news agency Bernama issued a report worthy of nomination to the pantheon of stories with the most boring headlines - the perennial classics being "Small Earthquake in Chile; Not Many Dead" (apocryphal) and "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative" (The New York Times).

Bernama's "No adverse impact reported from use of B5 biodiesel" led with non-news delivered by Hamzah Zainudin, Malaysia's deputy minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities, that diesel vehicle drivers have not complained about the 5 percent biodiesel/95 percent petrodiesel blend that the country has been introducing, state-by-state, since June.

"Tests have revealed that the B5 fuel is suitable for use in diesel vehicles," he told reporters. Well, golly gosh! I should think so too.

The Bernama report claimed Malaysia is the second country to introduce B5 after Indonesia, which has been selling it in selected cities and provinces since 2006. It points out that neighbouring green-wannabes, Thailand and the Philippines, are only using B2 and B1, respectively.

This pretension at leadership is, of course, entirely specious since many countries have been using biofuels in general and biodiesel in particular for several years and offer blends at higher ratios. (And, by the way, did you know that the first transesterification of a vegetable oil into what we now call biodiesel took place in 1853 and that when Rudolf Diesel first fired up his eponymous engine back in 1893, he used peanut oil as the fuel?)

An increasing percentage of the road transport fuel mix in the United States has had a mandatory bio component since the the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the diesel fleets owned by local, state and federal governments - including the US military - have been running on B20 since 2002.

The world's largest biodiesel market is, however, the European Union where fuel-efficient diesel-powered cars are far more popular than in North America. Three years ago the EU set a target that biofuel should account for 10 percent of road transport fuel by 2020, which should have been a boon to palm oil producers in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The problem is, however, that Europe's eco-conscious consumers want no truck (pardon the pun) with biofuel that comes at the expense of rainforest destruction. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has has been lobbying EU policy makers to embrace palm-oil based biofuels and has spent time and money trying to persuade markets that its environmental practices are up to scratch, but to no avail it seems.

MPOC had its knuckles rapped recently by advertising watch dogs in Belgium and the UK, which ruled against its claim that palm oil production is sustainable. And on 19 July the EU approved the first set of voluntary sustainability schemes for biofuels as required by the its Renewable Energy Directive.

The purpose of the schemes is to ensure that biofuels used in the 27 EU member states are not derived from lands that were converted from rainforests or natural grasslands. Strange to say this was not covered in the Bernama report.

That leaves the dodgier end of the Malaysian palm-oil industry with decidedly diminished prospects outside the domestic market. It is therefore no great surprise that the federal Barisan Nasional coalition government - which for years turned a blind eye to the endemic corruption and environmental abuse of the allied logging and palm oil industries - is trying to fire up enthusiasm for locally-made biodiesel.

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