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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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Friday, March 24, 2006

American agro-lobby pushes for biofuels

Here at the BioPact we aim to bring European energy and environmental policies into synergy with development cooperation policies, especially as they relate to Africa. It is however interesting to see how the politics surrounding biofuels and bioenergy are changing elsewhere, more particularly in the United States.
Amanda Griscom Little wrote an interesting essay about this over at Grist Magazine:

A few more strange bedfellows have recently been coaxed into the sack with the enviros, hawks, and labor advocates pushing for a smarter U.S. energy strategy. The newbies include growers of corn, soy, wheat, trees, and even dairy cows, all of which could play a role in cultivating homegrown energy sources.

Earlier this month, some 70 agriculture and forestry groups and companies endorsed a campaign dubbed "25 x '25," which advocates that 25 percent of energy in the U.S. come from "America's working lands" by 2025. That means biofuels like ethanol, bioenergy from processed animal manure and agricultural waste, and wind and solar power produced on agricultural lands. At the moment, these sources make up less than 4 percent of America's energy mix. Backers of the campaign, many of them generally right-leaning, include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, the Association of Consulting Foresters of America, and the farm equipment giant Deere & Co.

"We don't see this as big, we see it as enormous," said Ernest Shea, a longtime agriculture and conservation lobbyist who is spearheading the 25 x '25 coalition. "Land managers inherently understand how soil, water, air, and sunlight can be harnessed and harvested, be it for nourishment or fuel. We see this as something that will dramatically expand agriculture's role -- as a producer not just of food and fiber, but also energy for America."

Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan group of business, security, and environment experts that is funding the 25 x '25 campaign with support from private foundations, freely admits that the 25 percent target is a stretch: "As an energy wonk, I swallowed hard when [Shea and other agriculture leaders] presented this goal to me, because I know how aggressive it is." But, he says, it's doable, particularly given the tremendous amount of political capital agriculture interests bring to the table.

According to Kevin Curtis, a vice president at National Environmental Trust, there are more than 30 senators who consistently vote in favor of agriculture interests, most of whom have not traditionally supported clean-energy initiatives. Said Detchon, "If you look at the map last year of the [congressional] support for renewable fuels, it was in the center of the country, and the support for renewable electricity was stronger in coastal states. We're trying to bring those two together."

Already, the 25 x '25 coalition boasts an impressive roster of backers from both sides of the aisle, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Gingrich, speaking at the March 8 press conference where 25 x '25 was unveiled, hailed the campaign as "urgent ... one of the major building blocks of creating a national security [plan]," and said there was no time to spare in turning its goals into legislative reality: "I urge you to go to Congress to get a resolution this year on a bipartisan basis that directs the congressional committees and the budget committees to develop a 25 x '25 strategy."

Given that no such strategy has yet begun to be mapped out, however, the chances of enacting any meaningful 25 x '25 legislation this year are slim. The coalition has rallied an array of interests around a broad goal, the symbolic importance of which cannot be underestimated, but hasn't put forward a plan for actually attaining that goal.

"There isn't much there there yet," said Nathanael Greene, a renewable-energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're supportive of the concept, of course, and applaud the Energy Future Coalition's success in bringing new allies to the table, but the real challenge is getting them to commit to a plan that can actually get us to 25 by '25." In other words, a plan that includes not just subsidies for so-called energy crops, but actual federal mandates such as a renewable portfolio standard requiring a certain percentage of the electricity produced in the U.S. to come from renewable sources, and a renewable fuels standard requiring a similar target for the use of biofuels.

Pork It Over

While NRDC and Environmental Defense are among the motley groups that have endorsed the 25 x '25 campaign, some enviros are concerned that the driving force behind the alliance is the heavy scent of pork, not a commitment to a clean-energy future nor to the kind of serious, binding policies that could help such a vision materialize.

Sure enough, there's good reason why agricultural interests would be hungry for new subsidies. The World Trade Organization is negotiating highly contentious rules that farmers fear could considerably constrain U.S. subsidies for agriculture. For years, the green community has been trying to get agriculture leaders to back renewables, and it's no coincidence that now is the moment they've decided to jump on board, some environmental activists say.

"There's a perfect storm of dynamics that is pushing the ag community toward renewables," says David Waskow, international program director for Friends of the Earth. "First, the pressure on their subsidies from the WTO. Second, the oversupply in the market that has caused their crop prices to bottom out. Third, high oil prices have made biofuels far more cost-competitive."

Don Villwock, a board member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 5 million farmers in the United States, admits that international trade negotiations have motivated his organization's support for the 25 x '25 plan. "We see it as a way to replace those dollars [from agriculture subsidies]," Villwock said. He hopes that the departments of energy and defense will pitch in alongside the USDA to subsidize "energy crops."

More important than subsidies, though, says Villwock, is the greater demand for crops that could come from the renewable-energy sector, driving up prices. He sees this happening already: After an ethanol plant was built near his farm in Indiana, the corn in his area started selling for 15 cents more a bushel.

"I see this as a very rare win-win-win-win opportunity," Villwock said of 25 x '25. He argues that in addition to benefiting farmers, the environment, and national security, it would give a boost to rural communities by creating jobs at wind farms and alternative-fuel plants, most of which are being built in non-urban areas.

How Green Is My Biofuel?

Enviros are not necessarily convinced, however, that the planet would be among the winners. Some have raised concerns that large-scale biofuel production could promote the development of monocultures -- vast tracts of switchgrass, for instance -- that could threaten wildlife habitat and biodiversity. But the main concern, according to NRDC's Greene, "is not so much the total number of acres that must be farmed, but the way those acres are cultivated."

Greene was lead author on a 2004 report, "Growing Energy," which concluded that biofuels could displace nearly 8 million barrels of oil a day by 2050, roughly equivalent to the current daily demand for gasoline in the U.S., without putting any additional acres under cultivation or displacing food production (assuming that agricultural practices become more efficient). But, he says, there are legitimate concerns about the amount of resources -- pesticides, fertilizers, water, gasoline for farm equipment -- that would be used to grow and harvest those crops. "If these plans aren't drafted with sustainable guidelines, clearly that could be a problem," said Greene. "We have to get the incentives structured right so that farmers are rewarded for being sustainable."

Also, because the 25 x '25 campaign would "let the market choose which renewable resources to prioritize," according to Detchon, the initial emphasis would likely be on more market-ready sources such as corn-derived ethanol and, to some extent, wind power, rather than eco-friendly but still relatively high-priced solar power.

Enviros also point out that the 25 x '25 strategy would only be a potent weapon against global warming if the emphasis were on cellulosic ethanol, because the corn-derived variety offers negligible reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions compared to gasoline. Furthermore, they say, if timber is included in the plan and characterized as a renewable energy resource, it could become an excuse for the timber industry to manage and harvest more wildlands.

Party of 25

The leaders of 25 x '25 have made it clear that while the campaign welcomes environmental allies, it is not primarily designed as an environmental initiative. "Its beating heart is with agricultural groups," says Kalee Kreider, communications director for 25 x '25.

That said, aggies may very well be supportive of the kind of regulatory standards that enviros have long been hankering for. Villwock, for instance, was unabashedly enthusiastic about the prospect of renewable fuel and electricity standards and requirements for Detroit to manufacture flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on gas-ethanol blends -- and why wouldn't he be? While it would impose costs on utilities, fuel providers, and auto manufacturers, it would only increase demand for agricultural crops such as corn and soy and waste products such as cattle manure and woodchips. (Bringing the energy industry and automakers on board, though, will be no small feat.)

According to Detchon, the current strategy is to roll 25 x '25 out in three legislative phases. Stage one, already under way, aims to get 50 percent of Congress members to endorse, in principle, the goals of the coalition by the end of this year. Stage two, also in the works, would get legislatures in 20 states to endorse the 25 x '25 target (the Colorado legislature has already done so, and Indiana, Kansas, and Pennsylvania are considering similar resolutions).

Both of these phases, Detchon hopes, will get the ball rolling on stage three: drafting detailed, binding national legislation that would put the campaign into action, either to be passed as a stand-alone bill or as amendments to farm, appropriations, energy, and tax bills. He hopes to work with a bipartisan coalition of farm-state senators to usher these initiatives through next year. While he won't name names, obvious candidates include Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Despite some reservations, many in the environmental community can be expected to help rally support for any such legislation. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Sierra Club President Carl Pope spoke to the political advantages of having agriculture interests support a clean-energy agenda: "The environmental chorus was never big enough to sing this song. We needed a bigger chorus, so now we're adding the bass section."

Muck it up: We welcome rumors, whistleblowing, classified documents, or other useful tips on environmental policies, Beltway shenanigans, and the people behind them. Please send 'em to [email protected]
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Amanda Griscom Little writes Grist's Muckraker column on environmental politics and policy and interviews green luminaries for the magazine. Her articles on energy and the environment have also appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine.

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