Methane leaks from palm oil wastewater are climate concern, CU-Boulder study says

In recent years, palm oil production has come under fire from environmentalists concerned about the deforestation of land in the tropics to make way for new palm plantations. Now there is a new reason to be concerned about palm oil’s environmental impact, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

lagoon system itself in a Costa Rican palm oil plantation

Lagoon system in Costa Rican palm oil plantation

An analysis published Feb. 26 in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that the wastewater produced during the processing of palm oil is a significant source of heat-trapping methane in the atmosphere.

But the researchers also present a possible solution: capturing the methane and using it as a renewable energy source. 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. 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.

Hana Fancher & Phil Taylor

Hana Fancher & Phil Taylor

“This is a largely overlooked dimension of palm oil’s environmental problems,” said lead author Philip Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

“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.”

Taylor, whose research typically focuses on carbon cycling in old-growth tropical forests, was inspired to do the analysis by undergraduate researcher Hana Fancher, who also is a co-author of the journal article.

Other co-authors from CU-Boulder include Associate Professor Diana Nemergut, doctoral student Samantha Weintraub and Professor Alan Townsend, in whose lab the work was based. Other co-authors include Cory Cleveland of the University of Montana, William Wieder of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Teresa Bilinski of St. Edwards University.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Alan Townshend.

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