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Palm oil industry adds lobbying muscle in EPA climate battle
By Ben Geman - 05/17/12 01:13 PM ET
The palm oil industry has hired law and lobbying giant Holland & Knight to help battle the Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary finding that palm-based biofuels don't meet the greenhouse gas standards of the federal renewable auto fuels mandate.
The action by Indonesian and Malaysian trade groups — and a major biofuel refining company — underscores the financial stakes of the wonky, behind-the-scenes scuffle over how to scientifically gauge the carbon footprint of the fuels.
Lobbying disclosure records show that the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the Indonesian Palm Oil Board and Neste Oil have brought on Holland & Knight, which is among K Street's highest revenue lobby shops.
And the U.S. arm of Wilmar International, a major palm oil producer, has retained the firm Van Ness Feldman to lobby on the issue, according to an April disclosure filing.
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.
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