Power from Palm Trees: green dream, or eco-nightmare?
Mark Incledon has a cunning plan, a green plan. "Our vegetable oil comes from plants, and the beauty of plants is that they extract CO2 from the air, and pump oxygen back in. It's a totally green process."
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Take the oil from a plant, burn it in an engine to make electricity. The CO2 that comes out of your chimney is no more than the gas the plant absorbed when it grew.
Energy crisis solved. Global warming chilled.
And that is pretty much the pitch that Bristol councillors will hear on February 24th. A group of entrepreneurs want to build a power station at Avonmouth. There's already a gas power plant there, a huge oil depot and six million tonnes of coal come through the port each year. No-one can claim this will spoil the view.
"We're going to make 400,000 mega watt hours of electricity," Mr Incledon goes on. "Enough to light up 25,000 houses."
The UK is running out of energy, especially electricity, and new sources are needed. This would be the country's first biofuel power station, and the company, W4B, plans others. Not only would they produce vital electricity, say W4B, they would do so with the carbon footprint of a mouse.
But the opposition is mammoth.
Here's why. The plant will need around 70,000 tonnes of vegetable oil a year. To feed it, at least at first, W4B accept they will need to enter the murky waters of the palm oil debate.
"All the palm oil that's being grown at the moment, is being used," Jeremy Birch explains. He runs the Bristol Friends of the Earth, and is one of 900 people who have formally opposed this plant.
"So if they increase the demand for palm oil, the only way they can meet that is with new plantations. And that means chopping down rainforests."
Mr Birch and his friends reckon the biofuel plant will, of itself, result in rainforests being cutdown, orangutans being killed, indigenous people being displaced. Not surprisingly, W4B disagree.
It's a hugely complex row. There is extensive evidence that illegal logging in places like Borneo and Sumatra is connected to the palm oil trade. Certainly ground that has been cleared often ends up being planted with palms. But this is a row that pulls you one way, then the other. And W4B have a trump card.
"We will only use sustainable oil," Mr Incledon insists.
Just as you can buy organic coffee or Fairtrade chocolate, they will buy 'sustainable' oil from the official Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Mr Incledon clearly thinks this clinches his pitch. "Our oil hasn't been part of the deforestation process. It hasn't resulted in indigenous people being displaced."
The question is, how sustainable is this oil? The industry insists it is serious, and just recently Unilever, one of the largest buyers in the trade, cancelled a contract because of breaches of the sustainability codes. But in south Bristol, I meet a wildlife filmmaker who has seen, first hand, worrying evidence.
Evie Wright has spent five years documenting the destruction of Indonesia's rainforests. Recently, she has started filming on plantations that claim to be sustainable. Her films make for worrying viewing.
"People have had their land taken off them. Plantations which ought to be producing palm oil sustainably are using fire to clear the land as a cheap option."
Evie's films have been shown to the RSPO, and her evidence is being examined at the highest level. She claims that because the plantations are hundreds of miles from the head offices in Jacarta and Kuala Lumpur, managers have little idea what actually happens on the ground.
It's a compelling case. If she's right, then sustainable palm oil is a myth, and Bristol's entrepreneurs are being sold a pup. But, once again, they have a riposte.
"We are relying on Ofgem," Mark Incledon tells me. The government's energy regulator polices renewable fuels, like palm oil, and awards a complex series of subsidies. W4B argue that if Ofgem say their oil is ok, that should be good enough for the campaigners. But there's more.
"In addition W4B is committed to independent monitoring of the fuel sources we use," Mr Incledon explains. "And if a better source comes along, we can use that. This plant will be green, 100% green."
See what I mean about complicated? I'd love to hear your take on it right here.
Planning councillors from north Bristol have ten days to get their heads around it. Already the leader of the council has waded into the row, writing to the Energy Secretary recently:
"The use of these fuel sources creates a market that is leading directly or indirectly to deforestation and loss of agricultural land. Without the (subsidies) that the government provides, there would be no market and the land in developing countries could be returned to food production or left to remain pristine."
I've been making a documentary about this, which you can see on Inside Out West, on Monday 15 Feb at 7:30pm on BBC One for the full story. Meantime, here's a preview: