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Ancient plant has potential as modern source of biofuel

Les Blumenthal, Bellingham Herald (Washington)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A plant that flourished in Europe roughly 3,500 years ago could become a major source of biofuel.

Researchers say camelina, planted on millions of acres of marginal farmland from Eastern Washington to North Dakota, might help power the nation’s drive for clean energy.

Researchers in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho say the results from test plantings of camelina are encouraging. So far, the only farmers who are interested are in Montana, where more than 50,000 acres of camelina were planted this season. But a buzz is slowly spreading among growers elsewhere.

The story of camelina, though, is about more than just the marketing of an ancient crop to solve some of today’s most pressing problems. It stretches from a Puget Sound biotech firm working to increase camelina yields by as much as 50 percent to Capitol Hill, where lobbyists hope to persuade Congress to cover camelina under the federal crop insurance program to reassure skittish farmers.

“This is the most exciting crop I have seen in my 30- some years in this field,” said Steven Guy, a professor at the University of Idaho and a crop management specialist.

Camelina supporters say the plant can grow in more arid conditions, does not require extensive use of expensive fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and can produce more oil from its seeds than such other crops as canola at, by some estimates, half the price.
(29 May 2007)

The Mythical Ethanol Threat

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
There have been many claims in recent years that ethanol is going to help wean us off of fossil fuels. In fact, many of our political leaders claim that as long as we just keep subsidizing the ethanol industry, eventually cellulosic ethanol will take over and we will all motor happily along on E85. We are making energy policy decisions based on this assumption.

As this analysis will show, the data we have to date don’t support those kinds of projections. Let’s consider the effect to date of the explosive growth in grain ethanol production. The difficulty in producing ethanol from cellulose is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for producing ethanol from corn. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the growth curve for cellulosic ethanol production (presuming it is ever commercially viable) will rival that of grain ethanol. So, let’s take a look at how gasoline consumption has evolved as we ramped up billions of gallons of ethanol production.
(29 May 2007)

South Africa: Biofuel making staple food more expensive

IRIN via Reuters and AlertNet
The rush to produce biofuels, driven by the threat of global warming and higher oil prices, is exerting price pressure on staple foods in South Africa, according to a report by the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), a nongovernmental organisation that highlights food security concerns.

The report, ‘Biofuel production and the threat to South Africa’s food security’, said the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, of which South Africa is set to become one of the continent’s leaders, will result “in a highly unequal contest between the poor having to compete for the basics on which they live, and the rich who want to burn it to run their cars.”

South Africa was the first Southern African Development Community member to respond to the organisation’s call to make the region more self reliant in energy production, and Cabinet released a draft strategy last year proposing the blending of biofuel with their fossil fuel equivalents and the integration of the production of the alternative fuels’ into its economic strategy to achieve a six percent growth rate.

The economic plan, the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (AsgiSA), intends to merge the formal and informal economies and envisages the biofuels sector would create 55,000 new jobs in the rural areas.

Although the government’s economic strategy does not specifically focus on the crops to be used in biofuel production, it “mentions sugar and maize as two energy crops that could be used to make ethanol,” the RHVP report said, because of recent surplus production of the crops.

A recent report by the National Agricultural Marketing Council said although food price inflation had dropped from 9.45 percent to 7.88 percent in the year ending December 2006, staple food prices, such as maize and sugar, rose 28 percent and 12.6 percent respectively.

This was a result, according to the RHVP report, of the “higher (energy) cost of producing it and because the surpluses which have had the effect of depressing the world price of grain have been removed from the market to be converted to motor fuel.”

… Economist and advisor to the British government, Nicholas Stern said on a recent visit to South Africa that “Biofuels if narrowed down to sugar and maize (in South Africa) will create problems, there is an opportunity cost to using good arable to make biofuels … SA needs to look for biofuels technologies that can be grown on marginal land, such as rough grasslands, perhaps Jatropha.”

Jatropha is a fast growing perennial plant that can grow in poor soil in extremely arid conditions without any need for irrigation and begins producing oil that can be used for biofuels in its second year of growth. It also absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and can therefore earn carbon credits.
(28 May 2007)

Mexico: Ethanol plan meets resistance

Alex Manda, The Herald Mexico
Mexico´s plans for a big push to encourage the use of bioethanol in fuel are caught in a wrangle with the state oil monopoly Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), according to Osiel Castro de la Rosa, a National Action Party (PAN) deputy from the state of Veracruz
Ethanol plan meets resistanceEthanol plan meets resistance
Mexico´s plans for a big push to encourage the use of bioethanol in fuel are caught in a wrangle with the state oil monopoly Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), according to Osiel Castro de la Rosa, a National Action Party (PAN) deputy from the state of Veracruz.

“On Thursday, we had a meeting with the Pemex board … they had technical objections to ethanol, saying that adapting facilities would be too expensive,” Castro said at sugar cane industry forum in Veracruz.

“These objections (have been) … overcome. We now have to design a minimum pricing scheme that will be profitable for Pemex and will offer sugarcane producers an income,” he said.

The issue is crucial in Veracruz state, which produced around 40 percent of the nation´s sugar cane last year.

At the end of April, Congress passed a bill to promote the use of ethanol made from sugar as part of the nation´s gasoline mix, instead of imported additive methyl tetra butyl ether (MTBE), an additive which is already banned in many U.S. states.

However, President Calderón still has not signed the bill into law, in large part because of Pemex objections, experts at the forum said.
(28 May 2007)

Ethanol boom may fuel shortage of tequila

Reuters via MSNBC
Mexican farmers are setting ablaze fields of blue agave, the cactus-like plant used to make the fiery spirit tequila, and resowing the land with corn as soaring U.S. ethanol demand pushes up prices.

The switch to corn will contribute to an expected scarcity of agave in coming years, with officials predicting that farmers will plant between 25 percent and 35 percent less agave this year to turn the land over to corn.

“Those growers are going after what pays best now,” said Ismael Vicente Ramirez, head of agriculture at Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council.
(29 May 2007)