In today’s Main Dish, Julia Olmstead surveys the environmental liabilities involved in biofuel production — stuff you don’t typically hear about in, say, an Archer Daniels Midland press release or from celebrity biodiesel enthusiasts.

One of Julia’s focuses is industrial biodiesel production, which, she writes, is increasingly focusing on tropical palm as a feedstock:

Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a “green” fuel.

As if on cue, today’s Wall Street Journal features (sub required) a blistering report on that very topic.

The WSJ writes:

Here on the island of Borneo, a thick haze often encloses this city of 500,000 people. The cause: forest fires that have blazed across the island. Many of them were set to clear land to produce palm oil — a key ingredient in biodiesel, a clean-burning diesel fuel alternative.

This sort of thing clearly makes a mockery of the Kyoto Agreement: set ablaze the tropical forests of the global south — wantonly destroying carbon sinks — so that Europeans can keeping driving while meeting carbon-emission requirements.

And to the apologists who claim that this sort of thing brings “development” and “builds wealth” for the people living in those areas, I’ll answer with a quote from the story:

“I feel it in my breath when I breathe,” said Imanuel Patasik, a 26-year-old delivery man, as he sat in one of Pontianak’s many open-air coffee shops on a recent evening. When the smoke is really bad, he wears a mask to work, but still wakes up the next morning feeling sick. “It’s part of life here,” he sighed.

Even a finance guy in Hong Kong thinks the whole thing’s a farce:

“Let’s be brutally frank: [The push for alternative fuels] is going to cause significant changes for the environment,” says Sean Darby, an equities analyst and expert on alternative energy companies at Nomura International in Hong Kong. He is most worried about the strain on water resources caused by accelerated crop production. Water, he says, is “just as precious” as oil.

Would that more U.S. and European environmentalists were so “brutally frank.”