Biofuel Debate

Palm Oil as Biofuel: Good or Bad?

Just because something is labeled an “alternative fuel,” doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly. This is the controversy surrounding efforts to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

There are multiple types of “alternative fuels.” True, that at the consumer stage they produce less harmful emissions, but what’s lurking in their past? Where did it come from? Was it grown? Manufactured? Transported? Where and by whom?

Do a little math with your answers, and you may be surprised to find that some “alternative fuels” end up with a bigger carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

In a May 2011 article, the MIT News Office reports on recent research by the Federal Aviation Administration for their Partnership for Air Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction which “calculated the emissions throughout the life cycle of a biofuel.”

James Hileman, the principle research engineer for the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a researcher on the fore-mentioned biofuel project, explains “You can’t simply say a biofuel is good or bad—it depends on how it’s produced and processed, and that’s part of the debate...”

Land use is a large factor in determining a biofuel’s environmental impact. According to MIT’s report, “Hileman and his team calculated that biofuels derived from palm oil emitted 55 times more carbon dioxide if the palm oil came from a plantation located in a converted rainforest rather than a previously cleared area.”

Is palm oil a responsible option for biofuel? Possibly sometimes, depending on where and who is producing it. But usually? Probably not. Especially if the current environmental production issues surrounding palm oil continue.

Researchers are looking into alternative biofuel sources with lower impact and requiring fewer resources and land, such as salt water crops like algae and salicornia.

There are groups and people taking action to create sustainable solutions for palm oil, which would potentially alter the commodity’s carbon footprint, but are there enough to make it a reality?