The Oil Palm

Malaysia’s Contribution to Low-Cost, Sustainable Energy in Hawaii

In February, the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) announced that it had successfully tested burning palm oil biodiesel at its Kahe Power Plant. This has been an effort nearly three years in the making, with close collaboration with Malaysian palm oil producer, Sime Darby. Unfortunately, the exercise has not been without its detractors, particularly among international environmental pressure groups that see any and all use of palm oil as an environmental existential threat.

But the success of the test at the Kahe Power Plant illustrates the importance of palm oil in its numerous applications, and its role as a low cost vegetable oil.

Palm oil was selected for use at HECO’s power plant for two reasons  it is price competitive relative to other vegetable oils, and is inherently sustainable. Nevertheless, environmental opposition has persisted, as illustrated by the defamatory claims by Rainforest Rescue, a German non-governmental organization (NGO) which is single minded in its opposition to agriculture development an d palm oil specifically.

In response to opposition from environmentalists, an editorial was published in Hawaii Reporter highlighting the importance of maintaining an overall perspective on sustainability. The editorial addressed the concerns of sustainability in the context of three pillars: People, Planet and Profits (the three Ps). Sustainability, as the definition implies, requires that all three pillars be addressed with equal weight, so environmental sustainability does not override economic and social sustainability, or vice versa.

This reflects the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s position, a position that has been much assailed within the environmental salons of the West. However, as independent research and industry experience illustrates, palm oil is crucial to ensuring sustainable development throughout not only the developing world, but the developed as well.

When considering these three pillars, environmentalists illustrate a clear and present danger to global sustainability. The policy of no land conversion that has been a championing cause of environmentalists and is becoming enshrined in World Bank policy is a current example of putting Planet above People and Profit.

Sustainable development is a driving principle behind palm oil development. Development of the industry has assured prosperity for millions, and ensures food security for millions more. Meanwhile, expansion of the industry ensures that global demand for vegetable oils is satisfied by the most efficient oilseed available.

Opposition to the industry is misguided, and can only ensure that less sustainable vegetable oil sources replace demand for palm oil. Environmentalists should consider this fact when opposing the sourcing of palm oil. Doing so will mean not only failing to account for People and Profit, but will fail the Planet as well.