Wrestling with Palm Oil: ALEC’s Slippery Argument Against EPA

April 27, 2012 | 2:35 pm
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

Weekends are a great time to unwind from the stress of the work week and indulge in a little conspiracy theorizing. Last Saturday I sat down to read the New York Times and learned the latest details about the until-recently covert operations of the American Legislative Exchange Council. This is the conservative consortium of legislative ghostwriters made infamous for their role in drafting “Stand Your Ground” laws like the ones implicated in the Trayvon Martin case.

But they’re not just NRA shills. ALEC is a group of state legislators and corporations that are responsible for a nationwide barrage of fiscally, socially and environmentally conservative bills to weaken labor unions and tighten voter identification rules. This ethically-challenged organization recently waded into the world of environmental policy, working to scuttle climate legislation and roll back renewable energy mandates across the country.

Money flowing from the corporate sector and influencing the political process is nothing new, but the subterfuge and underhandedness of the alleged ALEC activities leaves me feeling cold. Feeling a bit like the good doctor in Dr. Strangelove.  The way things are going they’ll soon be trying to undermine regulations for water fluoridation.

ALEC wades into biofuels policy

Peat forest cleared or oil Palm, Sarawak Malaysia.

I try not to let this type of paranoia enter the workplace, but came into the office Monday only to find that ALEC had trained its annihilation gun on the Environmental Protection Agency over its decision not to approve the use of palm oil-based biofuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Now it was hitting close to home.  I have been spending a lot of time over the last few weeks reviewing EPA’s work, consulting with other experts, and writing comments to help EPA strengthen their final rule.

ALEC, on the other hand, filed comments criticizing EPA’s finding with the predictable claim that it interfered with free trade — principles they say have “been so beneficial to so many.”

The people who pay the bills at ALEC may think palm oil is a winner, but there are losers in this story too: forest communities in Southeast Asia, biodiversity and global climate health. UCS has written a report on the problems of palm oil, citing it as a major driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia. Two Girl Scouts visited DC recently as part of their campaign to make Girl Scout cookies (which contain palm oil) deforestation-free.

I commend the EPA’s decision. There’s certainly room for palm oil producers to clean up their act, so I think the EPA showed prudence in leaving the door open for reconsidering palm oil biofuels somewhere down the road.

How I learned to stop worrying and love clean energy standards

These complicated details about where deforestation happens are important to informing EPA decision-making, but it is also important for California and European fuel standards. The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard is moving ahead, I’m happy to say, now that the courts have reaffirmed that the state can continue enforcing the law.

The LCFS is an important tool for providing a market force to drive the production of cleaner fuels, so that while the EPA is putting the kibosh on palm-based biodiesel, we’ll have incentives for the production of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol.

So let’s hope this is a sign that forward-looking energy plans will be upheld and ALEC-style rollbacks rebuffed. They’d love to kill California’s clean energy standard that requires 33 percent of its electricity come from renewable energy by 2020. Given the challenges we face to head off the worst impacts of climate change while meeting our energy needs that would be a major step in the wrong direction. Maybe not this bad, but close.

Photo credit: Flickr/Wakx