Total’s La Mède and palm oil as biofuels
France’s Total Corporation[edit | edit source]
The Total SA company history begins with gas and oil production in the Middle East, originally as the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (CFP) in 1924. Nearly 100 years later, Total was ranked as the fourth-largest international oil major by Forbes in June 2018, with annual sales of USD$155.8 billion. It boasts a presence in more than 130 countries, with its highest oil and gas production levels in Europe and Africa.
Yet Total remains headquartered in Courbevoie, just outside of Paris, and operations in France are as visible as the thousands of petrol stations. In addition to being an energy-utility provider, and holding stakes in two port terminals, Total operates six refineries and petrochemical facilities including La Mède.
The La Mède plant[edit | edit source]
Total’s La Mède refinery, built in 1935, was the first in France and remained a crude oil processing plant with a capacity of 150,000 barrels per day in 2016. That same year, Total planned to end its crude oil operations and diversify as Europe seeks greater energy efficiency and more sustainable alternatives.
La Mède’s history was marred by a massive 1992 explosion that killed 6 workers and injured another 38. That environmental disaster happened in an instant and was felt up to 30 kilometers away, but now there’s a slow-motion catastrophe affecting forests across the planet that puts La Mède at the center. That’s because in addition to solar generation at the site, Total’s plans for the refinery include biofuels.
Biofuel and palm oil controversy[edit | edit source]
Total’s original vision for the €275 million investment at La Mède includes the 500,000-ton-per-year biorefinery to manufacture hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) biodiesel. The goal is aligned with the European Union target for 10 percent transport-fuel renewables by 2020, the company says. In France, where biofuels are a top petrol choice since approved in 2007, they deliver €2 billion to annual GDP. Yet both Total’s plans and EU targets for biofuels have shifted. A new Renewable Energy Directive in June 2018 lowers the cap target for biofuels by 2030, and adds a phase-out for fuels derived from palm oil.
The EU seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, but not by using the unsustainable and environmentally catastrophic biofuels dependent on palm oil. The priority to reduce deforestation and other palm oil plantation impacts collided with Total’s plans for La Mède’s palm-dependent operations, as did French approval for the refinery since the EU already has decided to ban palm oil imports by 2021.
In May 2018, the French government issued a permit to allow Total to move forward but with a 75 percent limit on vegetable oil in its supplies, in order to reduce the palm oil used. The environmental ministry also requires 25 percent of the feedstock used to make biofuels at La Mède to be recycled oils.
Total said the controversy over its palm oil use is a misunderstanding, because the public conflates a mix of vegetable oils – rapeseed, sunflower, soybean, even new plants such as carinata – with all palm oils. The breakdown for a processing capacity of 650,000 tons of biofuel per year includes an authorized 450,000 tons of all oils, which represent 60 to 70 percent of the mix. The remaining inputs come from animal fats, used cooking oils, and residues from the waste industry, notably pulp and paper processing.
Palm oil is restricted to 300,000 tons or less per year, but that’s unacceptable to environmental activists.
Economic and environmental threats[edit | edit source]
Environmental advocacy organizations including Greenpeace France and Friends of the Earth say the spike in France’s palm oil imports because of La Mède’s biofuel ambitions will dramatically increase the amount of ecosystem damage from palm oil that’s used in France. They cite a May 2017 government report on palm oil sustainability that puts current consumption at 856 kilotons, 75.9 percent of it fuel.
The destruction of forests in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in Africa, means the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity, but also represents the loss of capacity to store carbon in global rainforests. Across the entire supply chain and use cycle, the biodiesel produced by Total at La Mède would create three times the greenhouse gas emissions and global-warming carbon than fossil fuels do, the activist groups said.
Former French environmental minister Nicolas Hulot disagreed in a statement issued in May 2018. He cited a 75 percent reduction in CO2, a 93 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide, and a 45 percent drop in volatile organic compounds when comparing the new La Mède biofuel site with past refinery impacts. Yet Hulot referred to France’s lack of seriousness on biofuels when he resigned abruptly in August 2018.
Many of France’s farmers also are opposed to the La Mède biofuel refinery because palm oil imports cause them economic harm. Farmers blockaded 16 refineries and storage sites in June during a three-day strike to protest the government’s approval of palm oil feedstocks at the La Mède biofuel refinery.