This is a story about the maddest energy scheme the world has seen since Ferdinand Marcos built a nuclear power station on a geological faultline. As I write, councillors in Newport, south Wales, are sitting down to decide whether or not to approve a new power station that burns vegetable oil. It's one of several being considered in the UK. These plans owe their existence solely to government policy.
When I say vegetable oil, I mean mostly palm and soya oil. The developer of the Newport plant, Vogen Energy, has admitted that these oils will form at least part of the mix. So has W4BRE Limited, the company hoping to receive planning permission for a similar plant at Portland in Dorset in the next few weeks. This isn't surprising, as they are the cheapest sources of vegetable oil.
They are also the most destructive. The world's soya frontier is the Brazilian Amazon, where great tracts of rainforest are being trashed to produce oil and meal for western markets. Palm oil plantations now threaten to destroy almost all the remaining rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia – even reserves such as the famous Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan, which is currently being wrecked by planters. Oil palm threatens the extinction of the orang-utan, Sumatran rhino and at least one sub-species of tiger. It is driving tens of thousands of indigenous people from their homes. But, maddest of all, it produces far greater greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.
A report for Wetlands International shows that every tonne of palm oil results in up to 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or 10 times as much as petroleum produces.
A paper published in Science suggests that when tropical forest growing on peaty soils is cleared to plant palm oil, it would take around 840 years for any carbon savings from burning this oil to catch up with the emissions caused by planting it.
After these plants were challenged by the small but very effective campaign group Biofuelwatch, the two companies started backtracking, suggesting that they might use other oils, not just palm oil and soya oil. But if they receive planning permission, there would be no means of enforcing this – no means, in other words, of preventing them from using the cheapest feedstocks to supply their power stations. And even if, out of the goodness of their hearts, they decided not to use either of these sources, it's doubtful that this would make any difference. As Carl Bek-Nielsen, vice-chairman of Malaysia's United Plantations Bhd, remarked: "Even if it is another oil that goes into biodiesel, that other oil then needs to be replaced. Either way, there's going to be a vacuum and palm oil can fill that vacuum."
The fact is that all these plants would be burning food to produce power. Even if the Newport scheme were to use rapeseed oil (which still produces more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel, though it's not nearly as bad as palm or soya), Biofuelwatch calculates that the land required to grow it could otherwise have fed 35,000 people. As the government's environment department, Defra, now says that food security is one of the major issues the UK faces, this is madness squared. Last year the World Bank calculated that biofuels were responsible for 75% of the inflation in the price of food.
But already the UK's first vegetable oil power station – Blue NG's plant in Becton, east London – has been approved. Thanks to a powerful campaign by local people and the group Food Not Fuel, Blue NG's attempt to build a similar one in Southall, west London, was thrown out last week by the council, though the Greater London Authority could reverse that. There are several more in the pipeline.
So why is it happening? For one reason: the government awards double renewable obligation certificates for power stations burning vegetable oil. In other words, you harvest twice as much taxpayers' money this way as you would for generating the same amount of electricity with a wind turbine. None of it would be happening if it weren't for this perverse incentive, which the government justifies by defining sustainability so narrowly that it excludes the greenhouse gases caused by clearing land to grow the oil. Ed Miliband's department is responsible for this. Over the next few weeks I hope to discover how the hell he justifies it.