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Former weed may fill world’s fuel tanks

Mark Sappenfield, The Christian Science Monitor
In the world’s most arid agricultural environments, jatropha is emerging as an alternative to ethanol.
…From China to Brazil, countries have begun setting aside tens of thousands of acres for the cultivation of jatropha – a plant many experts say is the most promising source for biodiesel. At the same time, companies from Europe and India have begun buying up land throughout Africa to establish jatropha plantations.

As American farmers plan to plant the most corn since World War II to cash in on ethanol, which is added to gasoline, much of the rest of the world is turning to jatropha, which is used as a substitute for diesel fuel.

The two are not competitors, since neither can be used in the other type of fuel. But jatropha is fast emerging as a candidate for the ideal biofuel. It is grown in wastelands, needs relatively little care or refinement, and is inedible – meaning it will not take food from the poor for the gas tanks of the rich.
(8 May 2007)

Rising Fears of an Ethanol Bust

Moira Herbst, Business Week
With some analysts warning of an oversupply of the corn-based fuel later this year, concern is growing among farmers and investors
… Over the past 18 months, farmers have rushed to plant more corn-and are set to produce a record crop this year-while small-time entrepreneurs and agricultural giants alike have built plants to expand capacity. A handful of initial public offerings have fed investors’ desire to get in on the action.

But while farmers and producers remain bullish on corn ethanol’s prospects, a once-enthusiastic Wall Street is growing skeptical. On May 1, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), reported quarterly earnings that fell short of analyst expectations, citing higher corn costs as a problem. ADM shares tumbled 5.4% that day to close at $36.60 as investor disappointment spread throughout the sector. Shares of U.S. Bioenergy (USBE), Pacific Ethanol (PEIX), Andersons (ANDE), Aventine Renewable Energy (AVR), and VeraSun Energy (VSE) dipped 1% to 2%.

Lurking behind ADM’s gloomy news are doubts about the future of corn ethanol. A growing number of analysts, once bullish on the product, are warning that an oversupply may be coming as soon as this year.
(9 May 2007)

Global rush to energy crops threatens to bring food shortages and increase poverty, says UN

John Vidal, Guardian
The global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed, says the most comprehensive survey yet completed of energy crops.

The United Nations report, compiled by all 30 of the world organisation’s agencies, points to crops like palm oil, maize, sugar cane, soya and jatropha. Rich countries want to see these extensively grown for fuel as a way to reduce their own climate changing emissions. Their production could help stabilise the price of oil, open up new markets and lead to higher commodity prices for the poor.

But the UN urges governments to beware their human and environmental impacts, some of which could have irreversible consequences.

The report, which predicts winners and losers, will be studied carefully by the emerging multi-billion dollar a year biofuel industry which wants to provide as much as 25% of the world’s energy within 20 years.
(9 May 2007)
Related from AP: Unchecked growth could see new problems offset climate gains, report says.

Comment from the WSJ Energy Roundup.

Guardian journalist John Vidal discusses the UN biofuels report on a Guardian Podcast.

Ethanol has a smoggy side

Tom Davies, Associated Press
Fuel emits fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline, but not so with smog
…Ethanol has long been touted as a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline and it carries the image of an environmentally friendly fuel since it’s derived from plants and plant waste. Experts say replacing gas with ethanol blends will reduce greenhouse gases and help the fight against global warming.

But the more than 200 U.S. refineries in operation or under construction – mostly in a swath from Nebraska and Kansas east into Ohio – also emit thousands of tons of pollutants a year, including nitrogen oxide, a key element of smog.

Increased use of ethanol – proposed by President Bush in his January State of the Union address – could raise smog levels about 1 percent in some areas of the country, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.
(7 May 2007)
The article simplifies the claim about ethanol emitting fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum. The amount of greenhouse gases varies according to the process used to generate ethanol. For current corn ethanol, the savings in emissions are not dramatic. -BA

Driving without petroleum?

Energy Charter Secretariat
Biofuels and other non-petroleum liquid fuels have great potential as an alternative to standard fuels in the transportation sector, but this potential needs to be assessed carefully if governments are to get policy frameworks right. As with any other manufactured resource, these alternative fuels have their costs and benefits, and this study from the Energy Charter Secretariat analyses the current status of available technologies, and the economic and environmental implications of different policy choices.

The report puts into context the production and use of non-petroleum transportation liquid fuels (bioethanol, biodiesel, and synthetic fuels) in key markets. Both ‘first generation’ biofuels (for which technologies are already commercially deployed) and ‘second generation’ fuels (for which research and development is underway, but without, as yet, commercial deployment) are considered. The guidelines are a desktop analysis and intend to give the best possible assessment of non-petroleum liquid fuels and provide useful conclusions and ready reference for a non-technical reader.

A key principle of the Energy Charter is the pursuit of sustainable development through minimising in an efficient manner of the environmental impact of all operations within the energy cycle. In particular, the Charter promotes developing and using renewable energy sources and cleaner fuels, and employing technologies and technological means that reduce pollution. This report was drafted with this principle in mind, and benefited greatly from discussions with member countries in the Energy Charter’s Investment Group.
(May 2007)
Recommended by Contributor Sohbet Karbuz. The 79-page report is available online in PDF.
The Energy Charter is an international body which begain in the 1990s (AboutFAQ)

– and he built a carbon house –

Jon S., Peak Energy
Considering trees as feedstock for liquid fuel is an excellent thought clarifier. Many people who would happily burn a stalk of corn to or two in order to roll their monkey wagon a few centimeters down the road are not so sanguine when trees are considered for the same purpose. I mean, it is worth a pause for most of us. A wooden chair is one thing, a heap of ash another.

…And what should be done with the hapless carbon stalks in those parts [where forests are decaying]? Burn it or let burn?


Dead wood from a dying ecosystem is more valuable to the globe stacked high as timber than burned for fuel. It is more valuable carefully interred in solid form than if it is left to rot and decay in place.

It should be taken as some evidence of a twisted pathology on a global scale that “we” as a human race are cutting down forests we do actually need, whilst letting broken down old forests simply twist and burn in the summer wind.

Something brilliant should be done in the face of our in-progress long emergency. The chainsaws must be called out of Brazil and Indonesia to come take down the wood which is in the kill zone of ongoing drought, not for fuel, but as a precious store of non-atmospheric carbon.
(8 May 2007)