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How will thirst for biofuels affect global hunger?
Ruth Gidley, Reuters
Fans of biofuels give the impression we could soon be running cars on maize, producing electricity with sugar, and getting power from palm oil.
Using plants to feed our fuel needs sounds like a great idea, and it could be a moneyspinner for some poor countries, but it might well mean people go hungry as food prices rise.
The biofuel boom is only just beginning yet already it has pushed up the cost of staples in places like Mexico where rocketing tortilla prices have sparked angry protests.
Experts are talking about a permanent change in food economics.
"We're into a new structure of markets," says British food aid expert Edward Clay. "It could have profound implications on poor people."
(26 Feb 2007)
Will Cellulosic Ethanol Take Off?
Kevin Bullis, Technology Review (MIT)
Fuel from grass and wood chips could be big in the next 10 years--if the government helps
Cellulosic ethanol, a fuel produced from the stalks and stems of plants (rather than only from sugars and starches, as with corn ethanol), is starting to take root in the United States. This month, Celunol, based in Cambridge, MA, broke ground on an ethanol plant in Louisiana that will be able to produce 1.4 million gallons of the fuel each year starting in 2008. Other companies are moving forward as well with plans to build plants.
But experts from industry and environmental groups say that without loan guarantees and other incentives, the nascent industry will fail to emerge from the current demonstration phase to produce commercial-scale quantities of ethanol. And without that, it may be impossible to meet President Bush's ambitious goal of producing 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels a year by 2017.
Cellulosic ethanol is attractive because the feedstock, which includes wheat straw, corn stover, grass, and wood chips, is cheap and abundant. Converting it into ethanol requires less fossil fuel, so it can have a bigger effect than corn ethanol on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Also, an acre of grasses or other crops grown specifically to make ethanol could produce more than two times the number of gallons of ethanol as an acre of corn, in part because the whole plant can be used instead of just the grain.
(26 Feb 2007)
Grain pain harms the biofuel industry
Fiona Harvey, Kevin Morrison and Mark Mulligan, Financial Times via The Australian
HIGH grain prices are threatening the nascent biofuels industry, raising input costs and making the fuel less economic compared with oil.
Agricultural commodity prices have reached long-term highs in recent days, based on forecasts of hot and dry weather conditions this year in the US, which could result in lower grain yields. This comes after oil prices have fallen by a quarter from their record peaks last year.
Corn prices reached another 10-year high for the second successive day, touching $US4.31 a bushel, up US5c on the day. Corn is the main feedstock for US ethanol producers. But its doubling over the past year at a time when oil prices are at the same level they were 12 months ago has raised questions over the viability of the biofuel industry, without heavy government support.
High grain prices create problems for biofuel companies which produce ethanol from wheat and barley. Other biofuel companies make biodiesel from oil-bearing crops such as soya, peanuts, palm oil and rapeseed.
The prices for most of these commodities have also risen strongly, reflecting strong demand for these crops as food, and additional demand from the biofuels industry.
(24 Feb 2007)
We'll run out of beer before we run out of oil
Jerome a Paris, Daily Kos
Today's diary is about beer, and about the unexpected consequences that the combined energy and global warming crises have on its price, but it also more generally about the unpredictable links we find between apparently unrelated issues as we push the limits on the exploitation of the earth's resources. The immediate story is this
Blow for beer as biofuels clean out barley [Financial Times]
The rapid expansion of biofuel production may be welcome news for environmentalists but for the world's beer drinkers it could be a different story.
Strong demand for biofuel feedstocks such as corn, soyabeans and rapeseed is encouraging farmers to plant these crops instead of grains like barley, driving up prices....
The biofuels boom, motivated by a combination of subsidies and regulation, is already creating plenty of problems while doing very little to solve the underlying issue, our gas-guzzling habits...
Ethanol is now required as a fuel additive in the USA as a substitute to MBTE, an additive that was found to be noxious; it is also seen as a home-grown substitute for gas produced from oil, and a renewable one at that, thus helping to solve two problems in one go: dependency on Middle Eastern oil, and carbon emissions.
The problems with that approach are numerous.
...What we are seeing is what appears to be increasingly desperate efforts by our industrial model to switch from one input to another as shortages appear - and propagate, and we keep on discovering new bottlenecks.
Resource scarcity is spreading, and the looming shortages implied in these skyrocketing prices suggest with increasing force that we are really going to need to start thinking about the demand side of the equation, instead of always looking for new solutions on the offer side. All our resources are at stake, and it's simply not going to be easy to reduce demand for one by finding substitutes - we're going to have to learn to do with less of everything, soon.
(26 Feb 2007)
Biofuels play major role in energy future
Marcela Sanchez, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
WASHINGTON -- Today there is a lot of excitement among current and former U.S. and Latin American officials, regional think tanks and multilateral institutions over this thesis: The U.S. pursuit of oil alternatives may lead to unprecedented levels of cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, bringing with it the strategic, social and environmental benefits long promised by trade integration advocates.
As outlined in his State of the Union address last month, President Bush wants to reduce gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years, requiring 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels annually by 2017. Fuel experts agree that in order to meet such a goal, the United States will need foreign suppliers of biofuels, particularly ethanol, the most widely used biofuel.
Latin America is uniquely positioned to be a top supplier of ethanol. Despite a 50-cent-per-gallon U.S. subsidy for its producers and a 54-cent tariff per gallon on imported ethanol, Latin American and Caribbean suppliers delivered enough to meet nearly 10 percent of U.S. consumption last year. The Americas account for 80 percent of biofuel production in the world.
Most of the ethanol imported by the U.S. comes from Brazil, the world's largest exporter and biofuel industry leader. With more than 30 years of experience in sugar-cane ethanol, Brazil has achieved the highest level of oil independence of any country, having replaced 40 percent of its gasoline consumption with ethanol.
(23 Feb 2007)
Rising corn prices put squeeze on dairies
John Stark, Bellingham Herald (Washington state)
Everson dairyman’s cost increased from $130 to $200 a ton
LYNDEN - The increased demand for corn for conversion to motor fuel is pushing up the price of livestock feed, and that’s making it ever tougher for small Whatcom County dairies to survive.
That was one of the strongest messages that local farmers delivered Wednesday to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen during their meeting with this area’s Democratic congressman at the North Whatcom Search & Rescue fire station.
The federal government has been subsidizing corn-based ethanol production for many years, Larsen said, but the recent increase in the price of petroleum has made ethanol more competitive and has spurred production of the fuel.
Everson dairyman Jason VanderVeen said the price he pays for feed corn has exploded, going from about $130 a ton a year ago to $200 today. Dairymen can and do make a partial switch to other feeds when that happens, but that just drives up the price of those products too. Bottom line: VanderVeen says his overall costs are up 10 percent, and he can’t pass that along to consumers. In fact, the price dairymen get for their milk under a federally regulated price system has been dropping.
(22 Feb 2007)
Alternative fuels and the selling of snake oil
Jim Green, Tulsa World (reader comment)
A few weeks ago an editorial touched upon [Okalahoma] Gov. Brad Henry's alternatives fuel initiative. The case for alternative fuels is strong. Most of the oil in the lower United States had been discovered by the 1930s and there have been no major discoveries since 1950. U.S. domestic oil production has declined steadily since 1970. The annual oil consumption was 70 percent domestic in 1970 and it's now 60 percent foreign. Some 75 percent of our oil comes from countries that are either fragile or don't like us.
I've never known an elected official so forthright about such a dire situation. ...
The nation's biofuel mania is fed primarily by massive tax-supported governmental subsidies, including crop support subsidies and development grants. Using corn and soybeans as biofuels feedstock is simply "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
... So, biofuel promoters now seize upon switch grass as their next "snake oil" miracle feedstock. Don't we ever think things through? We are now enduring a relatively mild drought. It's not nearly so ruinous as we've experienced throughout the past 100 years. Parched Oklahoma pastures are grazed to the roots and beef producers are paying $50 and more a bale for hay. Almost all hay is hauled from distant, less hard-hit states. There's not a spare acre left to raise the prodigious amounts of switch grass required, and switch grass production could not provide the barest fraction of our BTU needs.
There are glimmers of hope. Oklahoma City's mayor shows exceptional leadership, and he's not afraid to speak the hard truth. He says that Oklahomans have too long been "addicted" to the automobile and that cold turkey rehab is imperative. He urges reincarnation of mass public transportation and most notably ultra-efficient trolley systems. I greatly admire the mayor's bite-the-bullet leadership...
Jim Green is a Stigler native, civil law litigation manager, inveterate writer and life-long public affairs activist. Green invites responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
(25 Feb 2007)