French farmers start refinery blockade over palm oil imports

View of the entrance at the Total refinery, in La Mede, France, 23 February 2010. [EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO]

French farmers began a blockade of oil refineries and fuel depots on Sunday evening (10 June) over plans by Total to use imported palm oil at a biofuel plant, which have fanned farmer discontent over unfair competition.

The Vatry fuel depot in the Marne region of northeastern France was the first to be blocked on Sunday evening as about 100 farmers set up barricades with tractors and mounds of rubble, a spokesman from the FNSEA farmers union told Reuters.

At least five sites will be blocked on Sunday evening, with a total of 13 sites blocked from 9 a.m. Monday, Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA said in an interview with France Info television.

French oil and gas major Total, which operates five refineries and nine petrol depots in France, said late on Sunday that farmers have gathered at two depots and it had taken measures together with authorities, to limit disruptions.

It urged clients not to rush to petrol stations to fill their tanks, which could spark panic buying and shortages.

The French authorities last month gave Total permission to use palm oil as one of the feedstocks at its La Mede biofuel refinery in southern France, infuriating farmers who grow local oilseed crops such as rapeseed and environmentalists who blame palm oil cultivation for deforestation in southeast Asia.

France gives green light to palm oil despite European Parliament’s ban

While the European Parliament has decided to ban palm oil imports by 2021, France recently gave the go-ahead for a biorefinery owned by Total, a move that prompted many critics. EURACTIV.fr reports.

The organisers say the blockade, which is slated to run for three days initially, is aimed at pressuring the government into curbing palm oil use at La Mede and to address other grievances such as imports of South American meat.

“Our target is the state,” FNSEA’s Lambert said, adding that Total’s decision on palm oil was “the last straw”.

Fuel shortages were not expected as a result of the blockade, given France’s network of emergency fuel reserves and in the absence of sympathy action by fuel sector workers.

Palm oil is cheaper than rapeseed oil as a feedstock for biodiesel and French farmers say its growing use has added to their longstanding competitive disadvantage because of high taxes and strict environmental regulations in France.

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Total argues that its refining plan involves less palm oil than allowed by the authorities, offers an outlet for local rapeseed and will develop large-scale recycling of used oil and fat.

Palm oil has been widely criticised in Europe for environmental destruction and some lawmakers are pushing for a ban on its use in biofuel as part of new European Union energy targets.

The issue has caused friction with Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two largest palm oil producers, with Malaysian officials warning of trade repercussions that could affect a potential deal to buy French fighter jets.

Minister: Malaysia will retaliate against EU goods in case of palm oil ban

The European Parliament’s decision to ban palm oil, is “drastic and discriminatory” and Kuala Lumpur is ready to retaliate with its own trade measures against Europe’s products if the ban takes effect, Malaysia’s Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong told EURACTIV.

The refinery protests in France also illustrate a souring relationship between farmers in the EU’s biggest agricultural producer and the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

Many farmers welcome the president’s call for fairer farmgate prices as part of a food chain review last year, but they have been angered by Macron’s attempt to phase out common weedkiller glyphosate before other EU countries.

Farmers defend biofuels as part of EU's upcoming ‘protein strategy’

There is a need to maintain the EU’s main source of protein feed that are the co-product of biofuels, the European farmers association Copa-Cogeca told EURACTIV.com as the Commission announced its intention to draw up an EU-wide “protein strategy”.

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