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Road to Perdition

Morton Mintz, The Nation
High gas prices and our “addiction” to foreign oil, as President Bush has called it, have roots in a nearly forgotten criminal conspiracy. It was this conspiracy that ordained our extreme dependence on cars and trucks and the inevitable and all-but-irreversible results, including filthy air, congestion, long commutes and accelerated global warming.

In 1949, three of our largest corporations–General Motors, Standard Oil of California (SoCal, now Chevron) and Firestone Tire and Rubber (now Japan’s Bridgestone)–were convicted of having conspired for more than a decade to replace highly efficient urban electric transit systems with bus lines. The bus lines’ operators contracted never to buy new equipment “using any fuel or means of propulsion other than” petroleum. GM, SoCal and Firestone were fined $5,000 each, the maximum the antitrust laws then allowed. GM’s treasurer, also convicted, was fined $1.
(31 May 2006)

Shell looks to turn sand into oil

Terry Macalister, Guardian
Canada’s energy reserves: It only makes sense if the oil price is high – yet it needs lots of cheap energy

A recent decision by Shell to pay $2.2bn (£1.18bn) for a Canadian oil company with only 22 employees and no reserves recognised by the US financial regulator has surprised some in the business.

Is it another wrong turn from a group that “mis-stated” 25% of its reserves in 2004 or a smart move that allows Shell to steal a march on competitors by taking a dominant position in “unconventional” oil production?

BlackRock Ventures owns three properties containing estimated “reserves” of 209m barrels of tar-like bitumen that saturate the sands a relatively small way below the surface. These unusual oil assets are extensive but the costs of extraction are very high at a time when Shell says it is postponing some of its projects worldwide because of the rising equipment, staffing and other costs.

If prices remain high, which Shell clearly believes they will, BlackRock could be a good investment. Ironically, though, the economics of this business are particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs. A huge amount of power is needed for the various processes to turn the sand to petrol – an issue that worries analysts as well as environmentalists concerned about the carbon-intensive nature of the operations.

There is also divergence among professionals, with Shell’s major rival, BP, led by its astute chief executive, Lord Browne, steering clear of oil sands for now.

Meanwhile, the US securities & exchange commission, which regulates the New York stock listings of Shell and other major oil companies, does not recognise oil sands in its calculations of reserves. Neither do many industry experts when they are assessing the world oil order.
(2 June 2006)

Oil-Rich Venezuela Looks to Tar Deposits

Natalie Obiko Pearson, Yahoo! News
Beneath the plains and winding tributaries of the Orinoco River lie what Venezuela believes is the planet’s largest oil deposit — a tar-soaked basin that could help meet spiraling global energy needs.

It’s known as the “Faja,” or “belt”: a strip three times the area of Kuwait potentially holding 1.2 trillion barrels of extra-heavy oil.

Jet-black, sticky and oozing like molasses, Orinoco oil was long written off as too difficult and costly to produce. Now rising oil prices make it increasingly attractive.

President Hugo Chavez, who hosts a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries on Thursday, says these unconventional reserves mean Venezuela will become the world’s leading oil source for decades to come.
(29 May 2006)

Lessons from Brazil

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
…Yes, Brazil has in fact “figured it out” with respect to energy independence. But the reason they achieved energy independence is primarily because of their frugal energy usage, not because of ethanol. Increase their energy usage to U.S. levels, and the “energy independence miracle” would quickly vanish. This is the factor that the media and the politicians have overlooked. On the other hand, if the U.S. had the same per capita energy consumption as Brazil, we would be net oil exporters. In fact, our per capita energy consumption could be 11 barrels per person per year – triple the consumption of Brazil – and our production and demand would be in balance. We would be energy independent.

The real lesson from Brazil is that energy independence can be achieved by slashing our energy usage. It is simply not realistic to expect the U.S. to achieve energy independence with biofuels – unless we sharply curb our consumption. The next time you hear someone say we should emulate Brazil’s example, ask them to calculate the amount of ethanol this would require, and ask them how we are supposed to produce that much. It is time to start demanding details from the “Brazil believers”. In doing so, we may convey the gravity of the situation to those who think ethanol will lead us to energy independence.
(31 May 2006)
Rapier seems to be “The Man” when it comes to critiques of ethanol. -BA

Researchers Modify Bacterium to Produce Ethanol Directly with High Yield

Green Car Congress
Researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico have genetically engineered the bacterium Bacillus subtilis to ferment glucose sugar directly to ethanol with a high (86%) yield. This is the first step in their quest to develop bacteria that can breakdown and ferment cellulose biomass directly to ethanol.

They found, however, that while the yield was high, the rate of production from the recombinant strains was low. Further work is necessary to increase the rate.

Beyond that, the next step is to engineer the bacterium to produce the cellulase enzymes that can also initially break down the stems and leaves into the simple carbohydrates required for fermentation.
(31 May 2006)
Wow that’s a tough bug which can live within 86% alcohol! The idea, however, of genetically engineered micro organisms gives me a chill, especially ones designed to break down leaves and stems into simple carbohydrates! Science has only a slight understanding of the ecology of soil and compost. Who knows what would result from the result of such organisms into the environment? Also of concern might be GMO versions of Pseudomonas syringae, a bacteria which may play a crucial role in the formation of much of the world’s rain! -AF