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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Myanmar leapfrogs to oil independence through biofuels program - questions about human rights remain

The reclusive nation of Myanmar (Burma), which is governed by a ruthless military junta, hopes to replace all of its 40,000 barrels per day of conventional oil imports with a homegrown nut oil (jatropha) within three years. The military regime is implementing a large-scale biofuel program aimed at achieving oil independence.

"We've started from this year and within 3 years if we can grow it all over the country we expect we can maintain this level of demand," U Myint Oo, chief research officer for state firm Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, told Reuters. He said that the potential biofuel was known locally as the "physic nut", and was similar to the jatropha plant. Jatropha embraces a family of about 175 succulents, shrubs and trees. One of those, Jatropha curcas, also called the physic nut, is traditionally used to produce non-edible oil for making candles and soap, and as an ingredient in the production of biodiesel.

"Demand is increasing because of infrastructure projects, such as hydro and fertiliser plants, so really we need 50,000 barrels per day but we have to be thrifty," he said. "The government is telling people that prices are rising and could reach $100 a barrel, so it is telling them not to use energy."

Burma's aims and implementation strategy in numbers (few official data are available):
  • to grow 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of jatropha curcas within three years, on centrally planned plantations
  • to grow jatropha curcas on all major military batallion sites, with the resulting biodiesel to be used by the military
  • to encourage individual rural villages to create protective hedges around their fields, using jatropha (as the plant is poisonous, it fends off grazing animals that may damage crops - it makes a good shrub for natural hedges)
  • to involve so-called 'social issue groups' in 'planting campaigns' (this is where organised forced labor might come into play: These 'social issue groups' are reminiscent of the soviet 'sovchoz'; Burma's junta claims to be 'socialist', but it has lots of genuinly corporatist elements in its state organisation. Social issue groups have been used in the past by the regime as a means to exploit forced labor.)
Human rights, corruption and green fuels
The southeast Asian country of 50 million only produces 2,000 bpd of conventional crude but is a regional natural gas exporter. Civil society has objected heavily to Western involvement in Myanmar's natural gas projects, because the junta is accused of using forced labor during infrastructural works associated with gas exploration and production. But according to many NGOs and Burma watchdogs, other human rights abuses are rife as well, in other sectors: forced labor in agriculture and forestry, slave labor in road building and construction work, summary levied taxes as a punishment imposed on villages who do not raise enough laborers - the list goes on. On top of all this, the same regime is still waging a complex and underreported war against ethnic groups who are striving towards independence, with control over opium and heroin production as the hidden agenda for both parties.

The question is whether this military regime will now implement its biofuels program in a humane way. Jatropha cultivation is highly labor intensive and it is feared that Burma's government may use forced labor once again in establishing and operating the plantations. After all, the program foresees several hundred thousand hectares to be converted to biofuel plantations - a large, 'top-down' decision.
Moreover, instead of benefiting the poor's purse, the profits from the biofuels may end up in the hands of the same politico-economic elite that has been accused of plundering the country's resources. So even though Burma is potentially wealthy because of its vast natural resources, it is a nation kept living on the brink of bankruptcy by a corrupt regime that thrives on a purely utilitarian logic of filling its own pockets by whatever means available. Oddly enough, with high oil prices, biofuels may become just another means to do so. Instead of using bioenergy as a tool to introduce an energy paradigm based on bottom-up, democratic and distributed resource control, which benefits local people, the Burmese junta may prove that green fuels could just as well be used to sustain an opposite logic.

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