Palm oil plantation in Indonesia

The growth of palm oil plantations in Indonesia has led to massive amounts of deforestation.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

It seemed like a win-win idea: European demand for biofuel was set to spike, driven in part by regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Industry researchers had found an answer in palm oil, a relatively easy-to-produce biofuel source. Plantation owners prepared their operations to meet the demand …

… and environmental chaos ensued. According to some estimates, expansion by Indonesian palm oil plantations caused the vast majority of that nation's deforestation in the late '80s and '90s. And high-consumption production practices -- moving palm oil with petroleum-powered trucks and the practice of draining and burning peat bogs to prepare farmland -- have made the southeast Asian nation one of the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters [source: Rosenthal].

The Indonesian palm oil problem is really a combination of biofuel's drawbacks. The regional nature of high-producing plants such as palm oil means that certain parts of the world are agricultural gold mines: Biofuel demand motivates plantations to expand quickly. But if not done with an eye toward conserving resources and maintaining the spirit of reducing emissions through plant-based fuels, this ramping up of production can lead to greater environmental problems than the ones it's meant to solve.