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Total’s ‘shameful lobbying’ on French palm oil tax break sparks ire

Jean-Paul Pelissier/ REUTERS | Greenpeace activists block the entrance of the Total biodiesel refinery at La Mède near Fos-sur-Mer in October 2019.

Several French lawmakers and environmentalists on Friday demanded a new vote on a controversial palm oil tax break after the National Assembly on Thursday approved, without debate, a delay to end the tax break. Critics say the vote followed a successful lobbying campaign by energy giant Total.

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On Thursday evening, the National Assembly adopted an amendment delaying until 2026 the end of palm oil's tax advantages, a move that benefits Total, which uses palm oil to create biofuel. The vote came despite an unfavourable opinion from the budget legislation's rapporteur, a member of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist LREM party.

Last year, the French parliament excluded palm oil from tax breaks for biofuel sources, a huge blow for a new Total refinery which began operating in July.

But Thursday’s vote extended the tax break period “to leave a sufficient transition period for French companies to prepare for the end of palm oil in biofuels".

The amendment was pushed by MPs from the Bouches-du-Rhône department on the Mediterranean coast, where the refinery is located.

Environmentalists say palm oil drives deforestation, with vast areas of Southeast Asian rainforest having been logged or set ablaze in recent decades to make way for plantations.

"MPs in the majority, in collaboration with the government, have given in to Total's shameful lobbying," the Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth) advocacy group said after the vote.

It called the renewed tax break a "fiscal present" valued at €70 to 80 million ($77-$88 million).

Joël Giraud, a lawmaker from Macron’s LREM party, blasted the vote, telling AFP on Friday that "we got screwed".

"If the group requests it, I will demand a second vote," he said.

But the budget ministry said Friday that no new vote was planned "for the time being".

Constitutional court upholds tax exclusion

Total had filed a lawsuit against the parliament's decision last year, saying lawmakers had unlawfully singled out palm oil.

But last month the constitutional court rejected that argument, saying "legislators, knowing about the global palm oil farming conditions, used objective and rational criteria" towards achieving the goal of reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Total has pledged it would process no more than 300,000 tonnes of certifiably sustainable palm oil per year at the Mède refinery, one of the largest in Europe, employing 250 people.

The French energy giant invested €300 million to convert the Mède site from a crude oil refinery into a biofuel plant, starting output in July. The company uses palm oil as part of the feed stock to produce biofuel.

It said the certification ensured there had been no deforestation to produce the oil and would result in at least a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels.

But that has failed to convince environmentalists, with Greenpeace staging a blockade and protest last month at the site near the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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