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Total Reopens La Mède Oil Refinery As Biofuel Facility

French energy company Total has started production at its biofuel refinery in southeastern France. But there may be a dark side to its claim it is producing sustainable fuels.

In 2015, French energy company Total shut down its La Mêde oil refinery in southeastern France and began repurposing it to produce biofuels. Today, after an investment of €275 million, that facility has begun producing its first batch of hydrotreated vegetable oil, otherwise known as HVO, a premium biofuel suitable for diesel engines in vehicles and for powering the jet engines of commercial aircraft.

The La Mède facility has an annual capacity of 500,000 metric tons of biofuels made from 60 to 70% sustainable vegetable oils such as rapeseed, palm, and sunflower, according to Renewable Energy magazine. Put an asterisk next to palm oil. We’ll get to that in a minute. The remaining 30 to 40% will be derived from treated waste such as animal fat and used cooking oil. All the oils processed will be certified as meeting European Union sustainability standards.  The biorefinery will produce 50,000 cubic meters per year of AdBlue®, an additive that reduces nitrogen oxide emissions from trucks.

As part of the site transformation, 65% of the work required to remodel the complex was awarded to local businesses, creating 800 jobs locally and €140 million in revenue. Total also invested €5 million in the economic development of the Fos-Etang de Berre region by supporting job creation programs and efforts to attract industrial projects while supporting local contractors — five times as many than is normal for similar revitalization projects.

The new La Mède complex includes an 8 megawatt solar farm, a logistics and storage hub with a capacity of 1.3 million cubic meters, and a training center able to host 2,500 learners a year. Taken together, all these efforts and investments will provide employment to 250 workers.

“I’d like to thank the teams for all their hard work these last four years to convert our La Mède refinery,” said Bernard Pinatel, head of refining and chemicals for Total. “Biofuels are fully renewable and an immediately available solution to cut carbon emissions from ground and air transportation. When produced from sustainable raw materials, as at La Mède, they emit over 50 percent less carbon than fossil fuels. Our biorefinery will allow us to make biofuels in France that were previously imported.”

The Palm Oil Conundrum

Despite Total’s lofty claims about producing sustainable fuels, there is another side to the palm oil story, one that is laid out chapter and verse by Rainforest Rescue on its website. “Since oil palms need a rainforest climate — consistently high humidity and temperatures — and a lot of land, plantations are often established at the expense of rain forests. About 90 percent (2011) of the world’s palm oil is currently being produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations alone already cover nine million hectares, an area the size of the state of Maine. 26 million hectares are projected for 2025.”

Please see our recent story about how planting billions of trees could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the lowest possible cost. Cutting down rainforests to establish palm oil plantations hardly seems like a path to a sustainable environment.

“Palm oil plays a decisive role in the lives of almost everyone of us. Being a low-cost resource, palm oil is in great demand and is contained in virtually everything. You can find it in foods ranging from frozen pizza to chocolate bars, in laundry detergents and cleaning agents, in cosmetics, in diesel fuel tanks and in combined heat and power plants,” according to Rainforest Rescue. The largest individual consumers of palm oil are Wilmar, IOI, Sinar Mas Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Henkel.

Rainforest Rescue says, “Greenpeace International considers [sustainable palm oil] to be ‘little more than greenwash.’ In our view, the label essentially deceives the public.” Kudos to Total for repurposing a former oil refinery into a biofuel hub. Lower carbon fuels will be essential to clean energy revolution. But clearly there is still much work to do to find feedstocks that do not create sustainability issues of their own.

Total says it is rigorously policing the sustainability efforts of its suppliers, but as long as palm oil is a significant part of the mix its green credentials will be stained by the biodiversity and rain forest drawbacks associated with using palm oil and calling it “sustainable.” It is anything but.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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