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Palm Oil Disaster

Here's a story I'm not surprised to see (emphasis added):

Only a few years ago, oil from palm trees was viewed as an ideal biofuel: a cheap, renewable alternative to petroleum that would fight global warming. Energy companies began converting generators and production soared.

Long a primary ingredient in food and cosmetics, palm oil derivatives caught on about five years ago as a source of renewable energy, spurred by subsidies in many European Union countries. Imports have risen 65 percent since 2002.

Environmentalism is popular. Politicians want to be popular. It's easy to buy votes by spending other people's money! Sure, lots of that taxpayer money immediately goes overseas (to the benefit of non-taxpayers) to pay for the imports, but everybody's too busy feeling good about themselves to care.


The report issued late last year by Wetlands International, Delft Hydraulics and the Alterra Research Center of Wageningen University in Holland studied the carbon released from peat swamps in Indonesia and Malaysia that had been drained and burned to plant palm oil trees. About 85 percent of the world's palm oil comes from the two countries, and about one-quarter of Indonesia's plantations are on drained peat bogs, the report said.

The four-year study found that 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air each year from the drained swamps. Another 1.4 billion tons go up in smoke from fires lit to clear rain forest for plantations — smoke that often shrouds Singapore and Malaysia in an impenetrable haze for weeks at a time.

Together, those 2 billion tons of CO2 account for 8 percent of the world's fossil fuel emissions, the report said.

Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, called the report "astonishing," and said it shows that harvesting palm oil for fuel is counterproductive. "It undermines the whole project," said a climate specialist for the group, Anne van Schaik.

I'm shocked, shocked, that a well-intentioned government program manages to, in five short years, achieve the exact opposite of its intended goals on an enormous scale.

This is a marvelous example of the evils of subsidies. That tax money was taken forcibly from millions of people — some of whom would have opposed the subsidies in the first place — and then spent to achieve a result that even supporters of the program would find abhorrent.

It's worse than mere waste; it's active harm. Yet subsidies remain as popular as ever, to both politicians and the public.

This leaves us with the obvious and important question, "Are the subsidies being ended?" The story doesn't say, but somehow I think I know the answer.

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