Oil palm production is big polluter with possibilities

Researchers have found some bad news and some good news about oil palm production in Costa Rica.

The University of Colorado at Boulder reported Monday that oil production wastewater lagoons give off massive amounts of methane. But there is the possibility of capturing the gas to create energy.

The discovery comes from an undergraduate research project by a student identified as Hana Fancher, who made two trips to Costa Rica to complete the work.  The results were complied into an academic paper that has just been published in the journal Nature Climate Change, according to the university.

Ms. Fancher was a civil engineering student who knew about wastewater ponds, the university said. She is a 2012 graduate.

“This is a largely overlooked dimension of palm oil’s environmental problems,” said the paper’s lead author, Philip Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher. The University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “The industry has become a poster child for agriculture’s downsides, but capturing wastewater methane leaks for energy would be a step in the right direction.” He was quoted in a university release.

The global demand for palm oil has spiked in recent years as processed food manufacturers have sought an alternative to trans fats, the university noted.

There may be as much as 50,000 hectares of oil palms in Costa Rica, mostly along the central Pacific coast. Grupo Numar’s Palma Tica is the principal processor, although there are many growers. That may be as much as 125,000 acres.

The palm fruits are taken down in large bundles that are seen in wagons on the highways in the central Pacific. From there the palm fruits are crushed and subjected to the processes that turn out commercial solids and generate wastewater.

The maximum production levels can reach up to 30 metric tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare per year, with a productive lifespan of 20 to 30 years, said Numar.

The industry is not without controversy, as Taylor noted. Environmentalists decry the monoculture and the deforestation.

The university said that Ms. Fancher worked with the oil palm plantation to help managers there to construct a system that reduces the gases and generates energy.

The methane bubbling up from a single palm oil wastewater lagoon during a year is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 passenger vehicles in the United States, the analysis found, the university said.

This year, global methane emissions from palm oil wastewater are expected to equal 30 percent of all fossil fuel emissions from Indonesia, where widespread deforestation for palm oil production has endangered orangutans, it noted.

For now, the carbon footprint of cutting down forests to make way for palm plantations dwarfs the greenhouse gases coming from the wastewater lagoons, said the university.

But while deforestation is expected to slow as the focus shifts to more intensive agriculture on existing plantations, the emissions from wastewater lagoons will continue unabated as long as palm oil is produced, the researchers said, according to the university.

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