French farmers block refineries, fuel depots over palm oil imports

 11 Jun 2018 - 11:38

French farmers block refineries, fuel depots over palm oil imports

By Bate Felix and Gus Trompiz | Reuters

PARIS: French farmers have blocked access to oil depots and at least three refineries using tonnes of onions, wood and rubble as part of a three-day protest over plans to allow Total to use imported palm oil at a biofuel plant.

Farmers are concerned about the impact on locally produced oilseed crops, further souring relations between the EU's biggest agricultural sector and the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

Many welcomed Macron's call for fairer prices for farmers as part of a review last year, but they have been angered by the government's attempt to phase out weedkiller glyphosate before other EU countries.

Farm Minister Stephane Travert said on Monday that the farmers' blockades were illegal and that the government would not rescind the decision to allow Total to use imported palm oil.

A total of 13 sites were expected to be blocked on Monday morning after at least five were blocked on Sunday, Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA (National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions), told France Info television.

Total's 253,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) Gonfreville refinery and nearby oil depot, its 109,000 bpd Feyzin refinery and 102,000 bpd Grandpuits refinery were among those blocked by farmers.

The oil and gas producer operates five refineries and nine petrol depots in France. It said on Sunday that farmers had gathered at two depots and that 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.

French authorities last month gave Total permission to use palm oil as a feedstock at its La Mede biofuel refinery in southern France, infuriating farmers who grow crops such as rapeseed. Environmentalists also blame palm oil cultivation for deforestation in southeast Asia.

Organisers say the farmers' blockades are 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".

Widespread fuel shortages were not expected, however, given France's network of seven refineries, 200 fuel depots, emergency fuel reserves, and the absence of sympathy action by fuel sector workers.

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

Total argues that its plans call for using less palm oil than allowed by the authorities, offer an outlet for local rapeseed and will develop large-scale recycling of used oil and fat.

Palm oil has been 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 two largest palm oil producers, with Malaysian officials warning of trade repercussions that could affect a potential deal to buy French fighter jets.