The Green Blog

Palm oil under attack

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / November 23, 2009

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Excerpts from the Globe’s environmental blog.

What do instant noodles, baby formula, some biofuels, French fries, lipstick, and ice cream have in common?

Palm oil.

It’s the vegetable/oil fat listed in the ingredients of many products in the supermarket. The oil’s use is increasing as manufacturers steer away from oils that contain trans fats, by 8 to 10 percent a year, according to industry statistics.

But a United Nations report this year noted that some forms of palm oil production are done on low-lying, carbon-rich peat land, which can result in the release of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, the key culprit in global warming.

Old tropical forests are often cut down to make room for massive palm oil plantations, and the new trees do not sequester the same amount of carbon as the original forest did.

“If you are cutting down tropical forests and replacing them with trees that don’t [capture] the same amount of carbon, you are exacerbating climate change,’’ said Margaret Swink of the Rainforest Action Network.

In addition, orangutans, which live in the lowlands of Borneo and Sumatra, are losing their habitat as land is cleared to make room for palm oil plantations. Some estimates place the loss of orangutans at 30 to 50 a week.

A spokesman was unavailable at the American Palm Oil Council, which represents Malaysian palm oil producers, one of the industry’s biggest players.

The group’s website defends the industry’s environmental record.

In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil producers (including the American Palm Oil Council), environmental groups, and consumers joined to start the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to develop environmental standards.

Yet the more expensive sustainable palm oil has not sold well, and the World Wildlife Fund recently began grading many companies on the greenness of their palm oil purchases.

Two weeks ago, the roundtable’s annual meeting decided not to include greenhouse gas emissions in its criteria for sustainability, disappointing some environmental groups.

Meanwhile, some companies are moving ahead on their own.

For example, Seventh Generation, a Burlington, Vt., green household products company, recently pledged to buy only sustainable palm oil, even though it costs more.

A floating wind turbine
The University of New Hampshire’s Center for Ocean Renewable Energy will receive $700,000 in federal stimulus money to test the nation’s first floating deep-water wind turbine off the Isle of Shoals.

The money is part of $8 million in stimulus funds for a University of Maine-led consortium to develop three deep-water wind energy test sites in the Gulf of Maine.

If the floating turbines work - and survive the harsh weather of the North Atlantic - it may forge new public support for offshore wind farms. The nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, has been stalled more than five years, largely over aesthetic concerns because it could be seen from land.

The university already has an offshore aquaculture program that has permanent mooring lines in 170 feet of deep water, making it easier and quicker to test a floating turbine.

“This is a really exciting project because we’re pushing the envelope,’’ said UNH’s ocean center director, Ken Baldwin.

As early as next autumn, Baldwin and others will install a wind turbine on a 60-foot tower about 6 miles off the mainland. Two other larger, floating wind turbines will be tested off Maine.

But Baldwin cautions it won’t be easy: They have never been tested in a deep-water environment. The team’s first step will be to test small models, developed by UNH seniors in an undergraduate ocean research projects course, in UNH’s indoor wave tank.