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Total’s biodiesel refinery on-track despite palm oil controversy

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Total’s La Mede biodiesel refinery is facing controversy, with France’s largest farmer’s union calling for a nationwide blockade of oil refineries in response to the facility’s intention to use imported palm oil.

Last week the French government allowed limited use of palm oil feedstock at the oil and gas giant’s biodiesel facility in Southern France, according to Reuters. The move has proved controversial with French farmers claiming that allowing the imported feedstock creates unfair competition.

On 31 May FNSEA (Fédération nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles), an umbrella organisation representing 20,000 local agricultural unions and 22 regional federations, called for farmers to block French oil refineries on 10 June in protest at the move.  

Despite this, Total’s chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said that the facility is still on schedule for a September launch. Reuters reports that talks are currently ongoing between Total and FNSEA, while Pouyanne disclosed at a recent shareholder meeting plans to buy 50,000 tonnes of French rapeseed oil per year to be used as feedstock in the plant.

According to Total, La Mede is set to be one of the largest biorefineries in Europe, with the capacity to deliver 500,000 metric tonnes of HVO-type biodiesel per year. The facility is designed to produce biofuels from a variety of feedstocks, including vegetable oils, used oils, residual oils and animal fats.

In May, Total announced plans to ‘responsibly diversify’ the facility’s feedstock, noting ‘erroneous’ reports about the amount of crude palm oil it would use had stirred controversy.

A statement from the company set out the facility’s supply plan. According to Total, La Mede has a processing capacity of 650,000 tonnes per year. 60%-70% of this supply will be raw vegetable oil from sources such as rapeseed, sunflower, soybean, palm and distiller corn oils, as well as new plants such as carinata.

The rest of the processing capacity will be met with animal fats, used cooking oil and residues (from the waste and pulp and paper industries).

Significantly, Total pledged to restrict crude palm oil to less than half of the feedstock that will be processed on site, or no more than 300,000 tonnes per year.