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Growing use of corn for conversion to fuel may push up world prices of food

FinFacts (Ireland)
The US, the world’s largest exporter of corn, will use as much or more of the grain for conversion to ethanol in 2007 than it will sell abroad, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As gasoline prices rise, farmers are diverting more of their output to producing fuel rather than food or feedstock for animals. The new estimate highlights the growing competition between food and fuel that could push up the price of food globally. .

The USDA says that about 55m tonnes of corn will be converted into ethanol, compared with exports averaging 40m-50m tonnes over the past 15 years. This would be up from an estimated 41m tonnes last year – a quantity of corn that could feed 131m people for a year. The US accounts for 70 per cent of world corn exports.

“This year looks like being the first time ever that as much or more corn is converted into ethanol than exported. If oil prices stay high, it will propel this trend much further,” USDA economist Keith Collins, said in an interview with the Financial Times.
(25 May 2006)

Author Jeff Goodell on Big Coal

Jason Brenno., Global Public Media
Author and journalist Jeff Goodell discusses his upcoming book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future with GPM correspondent Jason Brenno.

Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith, based on the terrifying hours nine Quecreek miners spent trapped underground; he appeared on Oprah to talk with the miners about their experience. Goodell’s first book, The Cyberthief and the Samurai, was about the hunt for the notorious computer hacker Kevin Mitnick. His memoir, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, was a New York Times Notable Book. Big Coal arrives on bookshelves June 8, 2006.
(21 May 2006)

Coal May Be Fuel of the Future, but Industry Battles Over Path

Simon Romero, NY Times via Planet Ark
…Coal, the nation’s favorite fuel in much of the 19th century and early 20th century, could become so again in the 21st. The United States has enough to last at least two centuries at current use rates — reserves far greater than those of oil or natural gas. And for all the public interest in alternatives like wind and solar power, or ethanol from the heartland, coal will play a far bigger role.

But the conventional process for burning coal in power plants has one huge drawback: it is one of the largest manmade sources of the gases responsible for global warming.

Many scientists say that sharply reducing emissions of these gases could make more difference in slowing climate change than any other move worldwide. And they point out that American companies are best positioned to set an example for other nations in adopting a new technique to limit the environmental impact of the more than 1,000 coal-fired power projects on drawing boards around the world.

It is on this issue, however, that executives of some of the most important companies in the coal business diverge. Their disagreement is crucial in the debate over how to satisfy Americans’ growing energy appetite without accelerating climate change.

One of those executives, Michael G. Morris, runs American Electric Power, the nation’s largest coal consumer and biggest producer of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from its existing plants. He is spearheading a small movement within the energy industry to embrace the new technology. His company plans to build at least two 600-megawatt plants, in Ohio and West Virginia.

The company says these plants are not only better for the environment but also in the best interests of even its cost-conscious shareholders. While they would cost 15 to 20 percent more to build, Mr. Morris says they would be far less expensive to retrofit with the equipment needed to move carbon dioxide deep underground, instead of releasing it to the sky, if limits are placed on emissions of global warming gases.

“Leave the science alone for a minute,” Mr. Morris said in an interview at the Columbus, Ohio, headquarters of his company. “The politics around climate issues are very real. That’s why we need to move on this now.”

But most in the industry are not making that bet. Among them is Gregory H. Boyce, chief executive of Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal producer in the world thanks in part to its growing operations here in Wyoming and with aspirations to operate coal-fired plants of its own. Mr. Boyce’s company alone controls reserves with more energy potential than the oil and gas reserves of Exxon Mobil.

“We’re still not convinced that the technology or cost structure is there to justify going down a path where we’re not comfortable,” Mr. Boyce said.

Mr. Boyce’s view has prevailed. No more than a dozen of the 140 new coal-fired power plants planned in the United States expect to use the new approach.

The decisions being made right now in industry and government on how quickly to adopt any new but more costly technologies will be monumental.
(28 May 2006)

Seven Nation Group to Pursue Fusion Energy Research
David McAlary, VOA News
The United States and several other nations have signed a $13 billion agreement to develop a form of nuclear power in a process called fusion. They will cooperate to build an experimental reactor intended to mimic the way stars make energy, with the hope that the research will eventually lead to a plentiful supply of cheap, clean and safe power.

The seven-party consortium brings together the United States, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and India to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER for short, in southern France.

Plans call for the eight-year construction of the reactor to begin next year after the parties formally ratify the agreement. Officials hope to have the unit working by the year 2040. They predict that if all goes well, fusion could provide 10 to 20 percent of the world’s energy by the end of the century.

But environmental groups oppose the project. At the Washington branch of Friends of the Earth, Eric Pica says the program is a tremendous waste of money for the slight hope of producing fusion energy.

“You can make better investments by investing in renewable energy and energy conservation,” said Eric Pica. “We know these things will save energy and reduce our fossil fuel dependence now.”
(24 May 2006)

Shale Oil and Co-products
Milton Maciel, EnergyResources
As the Shale oil discussion heats up, I’d like to offer a modest collaboration on the topic. I live 70 miles from a Petrobras’ shale mining and refining site in Brazil. It operates commercially since 1992 and I have been using some of their agricultural products for my clients for a long time. Guys working there insist in affirming it’s the only commercial shale unit operating in the world, something that, for me, is hard to believe.

Anyway, what I find of utmost importance is that shale exploitation produces a series of more than THIRTY different products, for energetic, chemical, agricultural, pavement, ceramics, glass, cement and building industries. It is not, by any means, a matter of OIL ONLY. Those co-products represent an aggregated value that is higher than that of the oil-gas obtained. This makes a small or medium sized shale unit an interesting multiple stage operation. Considering only the energetic products, the cost is now US$25.00/BOE.

The Petrosix process of Petrobras is still the old retort method, processing shale at 480 degrees Celsius, and it works fine, with excellent economical return. That Shell process for USA shale seems to me an energy guzzler excrescence and a needless time wasting. USA engineers could improve the Petrosix process easily and adapt it to their own local needs, converting that immense shale reserves in tenths of useful products besides oil, naphtha and gas in a very short interval of time and with minimal energy expenditure. But, please, don’t you take wrong: I’m not saying that this would SOLVE the USA problem of oil shortage, that is ‘orders of magnitude’ higher.
(28 May 2006)
For a somewhat less optimistic report on oil shale potential see Oil Shale Primer: The Illusive Bonanza on the ASPO-USA website. -AF