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Bristol or Borneo? How are Biofuel planning applications decided?

Dave Harvey | 16:44 UK time, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Update on Thursday: You can read more about the rejection here or I explain to David Garmston on Points West here what prompted the rejection.

Councillors on the North Bristol Planning committee face a busy Wednesday. A new house is being built in Sneyd Park, and they want to knock down some 'non-listed structures'. Bristol Zoo have a standard renewal request for overflow parking on The Downs. Oh, and then there's Borneo's orangutans.

Palm Oil Production Factory in South East Asia
Yes, a rather unusual application for a new power station in Avonmouth has raised a massive debate covering the future of the Earth's rainforests and the protection of primates.

The officers' report for the committee today notes there have been 1,121 letters from the public, two of which are in favour.

It's hugely complicated, and hugely fascinating. New technology that might bring us genuinely green electricity, or the latest piece of 'greenwash' from the bio-fuel industry.

If you're new to the argument, read all about it here on a previous blog post.

But today's question is this. Should councillors, pardon the pun, give a monkey's for orangutans?

Council officers clearly don't think so, though their report puts it far more delicately. They've recommended approval of the plans. Here's why.

First, because this is a planning committee, not a climate change debate. Officers have exhaustively trawled the local government literature, and they conclude:

"... direct planning guidance for this type of development is provided within PPS22: Renewable Energy and its companion guide, PPS22, Planning for Renewable Energy, and advises that the production of the fuel source itself does not fall within the remit of the Local Planning Authority decision-making process.".

In other words, councillors must only decide if replacing this industrial relic with a new power station burning oil from palm trees or jatropha plants will spoil Avonmouth. As you can see, the site is not exactly a beauty spot at the moment.

The Avonmouth site proposed for the new Biofuel Power Station

"But but but but!" I can hear those 1,119 objectors cry, led by the Leader of the City Council herself, Barbara Janke. She wrote recently to Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband:

"There is a strong danger to biodiversity, as well as the knock-on effect of taking land out of food production and climate change implications of processing the fuels and shipping them across the globe."

Bristol is trying to win "Green Capital" status. The city is home to any number of ecological organisations, from the Soil Association to Sustrans and beyond. If this bio-technology is not sustainable, how can the city allow it on its own doorstep?

Officers, in the cool world of planning, note all the arguments and motions that have been passed in their report. But the killer argument is this. There already is a regulator for renewable energy, and it is not the planning committee's job to second guess.

"It is evident that if the Government are requiring Ofgem to assess sustainability issues in nationally significant schemes relating to the sourcing of biofuels that receive Renewable Obligation Certificates [ROCs], the same would also apply to smaller scale schemes that receive ROCs. On this basis, for local planning authorities to also consider sustainability issues in respect of the proposed development would result in significant duplication of assessment on issues which are clearly controlled through other areas of legislative control."

They are right, factually. Ofgem does police ROCs, which are the lifeblood of the green power business. Without them, new technologies like biofuel or offshore wind cannot make money. So the officers argue that since one hand of government is already checking the fuel source, there is no point every council in the land having their own opinion.

Will councillors agree with their officers? Who knows. But the temperature of this debate has been raised by Cllr Janke's comments. Her own colleague, Cllr Steve Comer who is on the North Bristol committee, recently cautioned her high-profile intervention.

"It is possible that our opponents will accuse us of being subject to 'whipping' next month when this comes before the Committee, and will(selectively) quote from the Leader's press release to do so.

The objection to this plant seems largely based on the source of the fuel that it might use once it is operating. I understand the objections, yet when it comes to planning we cannot use ... morality to reject the application, any refusal will have to be on clear PLANNING grounds."

If the house in Stoke Bishop awaiting 'non-listed demolition work approval' is yours, come prepared for a long wait before your application comes up.


  • Comment number 1.

    We obviously have to seriously watch where we get our biofuels sourced from, considering the ammount of deforestation at present. We humans have no right to let species just die out in the world, because of what we humans do -----to die out because of natural causes is a different matter altogether.
    I believe we are on the verge of being the most destructive species on the planet, because of the population growth. We have to get a space program going for alternative worlds, but this is going to be a VERY long term project, in the meantime we need to look after the only one we have as best as we possibly can.

  • Comment number 2.

    If we're going to have biofuel power plants, they should utilise biomass grown within European borders. Given it's ostensible aim of being a "green" source of energy, sourcing biofuel from the rainforest is like putting up a picket fence to stop a tidal wave - pointless.

  • Comment number 3.

    Surely there are two independent considerations for the go ahead with this plant.
    1. Can planning permision be obtained
    2. Will the fuel be available at the right price
    The council must obviously consult Ofgen to see if they will allow the fuel to be used. If they will not then the plant is not viable. To make protests on the unacceptability of the fuel in the planning process is counterproductive. They should be made to Ofgen.

  • Comment number 4.

    The world has not yet woken up to the crisis of overpopulation - that we all intuitively know is at the heart of all environmental and human woes. We urgently need a massive reduction of the ridiculously unsustainable human population, to preserve the most important resources on earth - biodiversity and declining natural habitats worldwide. Population reduction and habitat preservation should be at the top of ALL political agenda, not trivialities like wars, terrorism and 'the economy' (it looks after itself very well). The writings on the wall now. It is already probably too late for HALF the worlds primates (for a small example). the oceans are full of plastic cr@p and fished out. We have commandeered the terrestrial water cycle. We have changed the climate. We are dismantling all habitats and turning the earth into a disgusting human breeding colony, gigantic food factory (essentially sterile deserts) and refuse dump at the cost of all other lifeforms, and ourselves. Wake up, governments and people. We need to create a world body to oversee enforced population reduction in all countries. stuff human rights, this is getting serious.

  • Comment number 5.

    Sourcing Biofuels from palm plantations is unsustainalble. A considerable proportion of land deforested in Malaysia and Indonesia for palm oil plantations cause oxidation of peatlands common to areas of south east Asia. This releases vast amounts of CO2, considerably more than other soil types. This of course contributes to climate change (if anyone believes in it anymore after Pervasive skeptical debate regarding IPCC)

    There is also the issue of the impacts on biodiversity and loss of ecosytem services, including the loss of the Orangutang habitat. Unsustainable green washed projects such as these still primarily focus on short term economic objectives.

    Technology regarding other sources of biofuel is improving day to day. Recent research includes breakthroughs in making biofuel from waste biomass including orange peels and newspapers tobbaco even lawn clippings!Perhaps we should use existing tobbaco plantations for biofuel? New technology may not currently be economically viable on a commercial scale at this stage but palm oil is not the answer.

    University of Central Florida (2010, February 21). Orange peels, newspapers may lead to cheaper, cleaner ethanol fuel. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 24, 2010, from /releases/2010/02/100218090814.htm

    University of Teesside (2010, February 18). Everyday grass could provide green fuel. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from /releases/2010/02/100216221301.htm

    Thomas Jefferson University (2009, December 31). Engineered tobacco plants have more potential as a biofuel. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from /releases/2009/12/091230174128.htm

  • Comment number 6.

    I weep at the last line of Councillor Steve Comer's comment, "...when it comes to planning we cannot use ... morality to reject the application, any refusal will have to be on clear PLANNING grounds."

    That argument echoes down the generations.

    Get some backbone, man, and do what your heart tells you is right for your grandchildren.

  • Comment number 7.

    More to the point, the palm oil will have to be transported to the power station in the first place.
    This will produce CO2 from the ships diesel engines etc & these figures need to be added to the equation.

    Any renewable source of power has to be just that – totally renewable from the start of the process (plantation) to the finish (electricity output).

    It will also have to be balanced as far as CO2 is concerned, or at least better balanced than our current methods.

    If the station is built, it should be able to adapt to the various new forms of Bio fuels mentioned by johnblythman in post No 5 as they become available in the future.

    I appreciate the arguments, but doing nothing is not an option.
    Unfortunately, I know Bristol only too well & nothing is probably what we will end up with if they don’t pull their fingers out.


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