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    Spanish engineering and energy company Abengoa says it had suspended bioethanol production at the biggest of its three Spanish plants because it was unprofitable. It cited high grain prices and uncertainty about the national market for ethanol. Earlier this year, the plant, located in Salamanca, ceased production for similar reasons. To Biopact this is yet another indication that biofuel production in the EU/US does not make sense and must be relocated to the Global South, where the biofuel can be produced competitively and sustainably, without relying on food crops. Reuters - September 24, 2007.

    The Midlands Consortium, comprised of the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham, is chosen to host Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute, a £1 billion national organisation which will aim to develop cleaner energies. University of Nottingham - September 21, 2007.

    The EGGER group, one of the leading European manufacturers of chipboard, MDF and OSB boards has begun work on installing a 50MW biomass boiler for its production site in Rion. The new furnace will recycle 60,000 tonnes of offcuts to be used in the new combined heat and power (CHP) station as an ecological fuel. The facility will reduce consumption of natural gas by 75%. IHB Network - September 21, 2007.

    Analysts fear that record oil prices will fuel general inflation in Kenya, particularly hitting the poorest hard. They call for the development of new policies and strategies to cope with sustained high oil prices. Such policies include alternative fuels like biofuels, conservation measures, and more investments in oil and gas exploration. The poor in Kenya are hit hardest by the sharp increase, because they spend most of their budget on fuel and transport. Furthermore, in oil intensive economies like Kenya, high oil prices push up prices for food and most other basic goods. All Africa - September 20, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Power has won an order to supply Kalmar Energi Värme AB with a biomass-fired power boiler for the company’s new combined heat and power plant in Kalmar on the east coast of Sweden. Start-up for the plant is scheduled for the end of 2009. The value of the order is approximately EUR 55 million. The power boiler (90 MWth) will utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology and will burn biomass replacing old district heating boilers and reducing the consumption of oil. The delivery will also include a flue gas condensing system to increase plant's district heat production. Metso Corporation - September 19, 2007.

    Jo-Carroll Energy announced today its plan to build an 80 megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in Illinois. The US$ 140 million plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass, such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass. Jo-Carroll Energy - September 18, 2007.

    Beihai Gofar Marine Biological Industry Co Ltd, in China's southern region of Guangxi, plans to build a 100,000 tonne-per-year fuel ethanol plant using cassava as feedstock. The Shanghai-listed company plans to raise about 560 million yuan ($74.5 million) in a share placement to finance the project and boost its cash flow. Reuters - September 18, 2007.

    The oil-dependent island state of Fiji has requested US company Avalor Capital, LLC, to invest in biodiesel and ethanol. The Fiji government has urged the company to move its $250million 'Fiji Biofuels Project' forward at the earliest possible date. Fiji Live - September 18, 2007.

    The Bowen Group, one of Ireland's biggest construction groups has announced a strategic move into the biomass energy sector. It is planning a €25 million investment over the next five years to fund up to 100 projects that will create electricity from biomass. Its ambition is to install up to 135 megawatts of biomass-fuelled heat from local forestry sources, which is equal to 50 million litres or about €25m worth of imported oil. Irish Examiner - September 16, 2007.

    According to Dr Niphon Poapongsakorn, dean of Economics at Thammasat University in Thailand, cassava-based ethanol is competitive when oil is above $40 per barrel. Thailand is the world's largest producer and exporter of cassava for industrial use. Bangkok Post - September 14, 2007.

    German biogas and biodiesel developer BKN BioKraftstoff Nord AG has generated gross proceeds totaling €5.5 million as part of its capital increase from authorized capital. Ad Hoc News - September 13, 2007.

    NewGen Technologies, Inc. announced that it and Titan Global Holdings, Inc. completed a definitive Biofuels Supply Agreement which will become effective upon Titan’s acquisition of Appalachian Oil Company. Given APPCO’s current distribution of over 225 million gallons of fuel products per year, the initial expected ethanol supply to APPCO should exceed 1 million gallons a month. Charlotte dBusinessNews - September 13, 2007.

    Oil prices reach record highs as the U.S. Energy Information Agency releases a report that showed crude oil inventories fell by more than seven million barrels last week. The rise comes despite a decision by the international oil cartel, OPEC, to raise its output quota by 500,000 barrels. Reuters - September 12, 2007.

    OPEC decided today to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market by Member Countries (excluding Angola and Iraq) by 500,000 b/d, effective 1 November 2007. The decision comes after oil reached near record-highs and after Saudi Aramco announced that last year's crude oil production declined by 1.7 percent, while exports declined by 3.1 percent. OPEC - September 11, 2007.

    GreenField Ethanol and Monsanto Canada launch the 'Gro-ethanol' program which invites Ontario's farmers to grow corn seed containing Monsanto traits, specifically for the ethanol market. The corn hybrids eligible for the program include Monsanto traits that produce higher yielding corn for ethanol production. MarketWire - September 11, 2007.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

OPEC basket price hits record; analysts see $95pb this year

Prices for crude oil produced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) rose to a new all-time-high at the start of this week. The OPEC Secretariat itself announced the news today. The price for one barrel (159 litres) of OPEC-produced crude rose to 72.83 dollars, an increase by 34 cents compared to last Friday.

The new OPEC Reference Basket of Crudes (ORB) is made up of the following: Saharan Blend (Algeria), Minas (Indonesia), Iran Heavy (Islamic Republic of Iran), Basra Light (Iraq), Kuwait Export (Kuwait), Es Sider (Libya), Bonny Light (Nigeria), Qatar Marine (Qatar), Arab Light (Saudi Arabia), Murban (UAE) and BCF 17 (Venezuela).

The crude price was 15 cents above the last record high of 72.68 dollars on August 8, 2006. OPEC analysts in Vienna believe the continued critical situation regarding Nigeria's oil production to be one factor behind the continued price hike. Other factors are technical problems which have marred production of North Sea oil and capacity problems of US-based refineries.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Goldman Sachs warned that prices could hit a peak of $95 a barrel by the end of the year.
Our estimates show that keeping OPEC production at current levels and assuming normal winter weather, total petroleum inventories would fall by over 150m barrels or 6.5% by the end of the year, which would push prices to $95 a barrel with a demand response. - Goldman Sachs
The key Middle Eastern members of oil cartel OPEC are urged to increase output immediately. Goldman Sachs said OPEC production was a million barrels per day down on last year at a time when demand is strong.

A further increase in oil prices would add to inflationary pressures in developed countries, with some analysts already fearful that dearer energy increases the risk of at least one more quarter-point increase in base rates from the Bank of England.

OPEC today sought to calm increasingly frenzied global energy markets when it predicted that world demand for oil would grow only modestly in 2008. It downplayed the need for extra production, citing greater energy efficiency, higher taxes and conservation as factors limiting the growth in demand [entry ends here].
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São Paulo Research Foundation and Dedini to invest R$100 mio in cellulosic ethanol research

With oil prices closing in on record levels at $75 per barrel, Brazil's biofuels and bioproducts sector keeps attracting investments. From Ethanol Brasil [*Portuguese] we learn that São Paulo's Research Foundation (Fapesp) and Dedini SA, have signed a cooperation agreement [*.doc/Portuguese] to research new bioconversion technologies and to build a pilot plant for the production of cellulosic ethanol. The joint investment is worth 100 million reals (€39.1/US$53.8 million).

The 'Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo' (Fapesp) and Dedini's Indústrias de Base signed the agreement today during the 'International Symposium and Fair on Agro-industrial Sugar-ethanol Technologies' (Simpósio Internacional e Mostra de Tecnologia da Agroindústria Sucroalcooleira, Simtec), which saw its fifth edition being held in the city of Piracicaba.

The investment will be around 100 million reals, with Fapesp and Dedini each contributing 50 per cent. The collaboration will result in the creation of research teams with scientists recruited from universities and research institutions in São Paulo state, as well as from Dedini.

According to Sérgio Leme, vice-president of Dedini, the research may result in improved bioconversion of sugar cane - including the tranformation of cellulose rich bagasse into liquids - , an increase in the productivity of processing equipment and machines, as well as in improved fermentation processes to convert sugar and cellulose into alcohol. The agreement covers the coming five years.

A distillery for the industrial production of cellulosic ethanol will be built by Dedini, where the company will continue researching its DHR process (Dedini Hidrólise Rápida), which converts bagasse, the byproduct from sugar production, into liquids (earlier post). Dedini already established a pilot-plant in its São Luiz factory, which is managed by the Dedini Agro group, located in Pirassununga (São Paulo state)

Picture: vast streams of bagasse, piled up at a sugar factory and left to dry. Often, the bagasse is burned to generate green power that fuels the sugar-ethanol plant, with excess electricity sold to the grid. [entry ends here].
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Researchers sequence mushroom genome - could combat carbon, find better biofuels and clean up soils

An international team of researchers from Europe and the United States is carrying out a global effort to sequence the genome of one of the world’s most important mushrooms - Agaricus bisporus -, the white table mushroom. According to the scientists, the secrets of its genetic make up could assist the creation of biofuels, support the effort to manage global carbon, and help remove heavy metals from contaminated soils.

The Agaricus mushroom family are highly efficient ‘secondary decomposers’ of plant material such as leaves and litter – breaking down the material that is too tough for other fungi and bacteria to handle. How exactly it does this, particularly how it degrades tough plant material known as lignin, is not fully understood. By sequencing the full genome of the mushroom, researchers hope to uncover exactly which genes are key to this process. That information will be extremely useful to scientists and engineers looking to maximize the decomposition and transformation of plant material into biofuels.

The mushroom also forms an important model for carbon cycling studies. Carbon is sequestered in soils as plant organic matter. Between 1–2 giga tons of carbon a year are sequestered in pools on land in the temperate and boreal regions of the earth, which represents 15–30% of annual global emissions of carbon from fossil fuels and industrial activities. Understanding the carbon cycling role of these fungi in the forests and other ecosystems is a vital component of optimizing carbon management.

That however is not the end of the mushrooms talents; several Agaricus species are able to hyper-accumulate toxic metals in soils at a higher level than many other fungi. Understanding how the mushroom does this improves prospects of using such fungi for the bioremediation of contaminated soils:
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Agaricus bisporus is one of the most widely cultivated mushrooms and the genome research will also benefit growers and consumers through identification of improved quality traits such as disease resistance.

The University of Warwick’s horticultural research arm Warwick HRI will co-ordinate provision of genetic materials to the Joint Genome Institute in California for sequencing, will organise analysis of the sequence data and act as curator of the mushroom genome.

Agaricus bisporus has around 35 megabases of genetic information coding for an estimated 11,000 genes. The researchers expect to have a 90% complete genome within 3 years

The other partners in the international project team are: DOE Joint Genome Institute USA, University of Bristol, USDA Research at University of Wisconsin, Southeast Missouri State University, Clark University, Sylvan Inc USA, Institut für Forstbotanik der Universität Göttingen, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Public University of Navarre, Penn State University, Plant Research International Wageningen and Universiteit Utrecht.

University of Warwick: Decoding mushroom’s secrets could combat carbon, find better biofuels & safer soils - July 17, 2007.

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Study: biofuels to supply more than 15% of world's transport fuels by 2030

Market analyst Global Insight, Inc. says in a new study titled The Biofuels Boom: Implications for Automotive, Agriculture & Energy [*.pdf] that more than 100 billion gallons (378.5 billion liters) of bioethanol and biodiesel will be produced globally per year by 2030, an amount equal to more than 15% of the world's road transport fuel needs.

The study runs with two basic scenarios on liquid transport fuels that show dramatically different implications, paths, and consequences for the economy, for biofuel producers and for the automotive industry. The reference case is titled 'Market remanaged' and is based on the idea that OPEC re-emerges as the market ‘governor’. OPEC attempts to manage prices in the low $60/bbl range. The second scenario, titled 'Supply constrained' conceives of a new oil market era, in which the supply-demand balance is based on demand, with supply having difficulties to keep track; price spikes are common and unprecedented oil price levels of more than $100/bbl become a reality.

The study analyses the feasibility of bioconversion technologies, by looking at the entire production chain (biomass propagation, growth, harvesting, and collection; biomass pretreatment). The technologies covered are the biochemical route (sugars into ethanol), the thermochemical routes (gasification, pyrolysis), ordinary transesterification and the hydrogenation of vegetable oils to produce 'green diesel'. Biobutanol is covered as well. Table 1 offers an overview of which technologies Global Insight thinks to be commercially and economically feasible over the longer term, and in which state of development they currently are.

Potential supply
Under the different scenarios, biofuels will increase significantly, possibly reaching 15% of the total motor fuel pool world-wide (graph, click to enlarge). Both the EU, the U.S. and Brazil remain leaders.
  • The United States could reach 35% of on-road petroleum demand — in the same range as Brazil
  • Biomass producers will be in an advantageous position to produce renewable fuel feedstocks
  • The move will affect oil and gas producers in the United States and Canada by shifting away from petroleum-based fuels
When it comes to biodiesel, the study says that demand and potential supply can be based on non-edible oils such as jatropha, on wood waste, and other non-food products. In Europe, new technologies employing biomass conversion into liquids look promising such as NExBTL developed by Neste. In the U.S. biodiesel demand is expected to reach around 5 billion gallons (18.9 bn liters) by 2030, whereas in the EU it will stand at around 7 bn gallons (26.5 bn liters) by then. The EU has a supply gap and will have to rely on imported feedstocks (graph, click to enlarge).

U.S. growth in bioethanol will continue to come mainly from corn, and is projected to reach 15 bn gallons by 2015 (about 1 million barrels per day) and a whopping 60 bn gallons by 2030. In the EU demand is expected to reach slightly less than 3.5 bn gallons (13.2 bn liters) by 2030, but growth will be again be limited by local supply constraints and must rely on imports from Africa and South America (graph, click to enlarge). We think the projection for U.S. production of ethanol is slightly unrealistic, especially given the much higher commercial feasibility of producing the fuel in the South.

Implications for the Automotive Industry
Based on a survey of automotive manufacturers and analyses by Global Insight’s Automotive Group, the report shows what are the possible consequences of the biofuels boom for automotive manufacturers:
  • High volumes of biofuels in the United States will almost certainly require flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) capable of running on blends up to 85% ethanol (E85)
  • In Europe, ethanol content is held for most countries to 10% (E10), which is technically compatible in current vehicles
  • Biodiesel levels of 5% (B5) are possible in virtually all vehicles, and new vehicles can be developed to accept blends up to 30% (B30)
  • Technical fixes to meet higher biofuels levels are known, but will add some costs to vehicles
Zooming in on these consequences as they may be expected under the two scenarios and as they relate to vehicle emissions, the report finds the following for the EU:
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'Market remanaged' scenario
  • 2012: EU standard of 130 g/km CO2 emissions (without biofuels benefit) could be met
  • 2018: EU new vehicle CO2 emissions reach 120 g/km (without renewable fuel credit) and holds at this level to the end of the period
'Supply constrained' scenario
  • 2012: EU standard of 130 g/km CO2 emissions (without biofuels benefit) could be met
  • 2018: EU new vehicle CO2 emissions reach 120 g/km
  • 2025: EU new car efficiency is 90 g/km CO2

For the U.S., the situation looks as follows:

'Market remanaged' scenario
  • 2018: New vehicle fleet fuel economy reaches 32 mpg (193 g/km CO2), but there is much uncertainty
  • 2030: New vehicle fleet fuel economy reaches 48 mpg (128 g/km CO2), but there is much uncertainty
'Supply constrained' scenario
  • 2020: New vehicle fleet fuel economy reaches 45 mpg (137 g/km CO2), but there is much uncertainty; requires 60% hybridization in the United States
  • 2030: New vehicle fleet fuel economy reaches 53 mpg (117 g/km CO2), but there is much uncertainty

Implications for hybrid vehicles
The study finds that hybrid vehicles are introduced across all major (high volume) model lines, and hybrid diesels are introduced. As the cost of hybrid components decreases, the diesel-hybrid combination becomes attractive as a market differentiator.

Diesels will continue to play a significant role in EU
In 2008 diesel cars trend at 50–60% share of the new car fleet, in 2009 diesel hybrids enter the market as mechanism for meeting fuel efficiency CO2 emissions targets. By 2015 diesel vehicles take 65% of the new light duty vehicle fleet, whereas by 2030 diesels are expected to make up 35% of light duty vehicle fleet and at least 25% of the on-road fleet.

The study was conducted by Global Insight's Agriculture, Automotive and Energy Groups who worked with some 20 companies and organizations representing different perspectives of the biofuels industry. The Global Insight study was released at a conference in Monaco sponsored by the Foundation Prince Albert II de Monaco.

Global Insight: The Biofuels Boom: Implications for Agriculture, Energy, and Automotive - [*.pdf], detailed presentation - July 2007.

Global Insight: The Biofuels Boom: Implications for Agriculture, Energy, and Automotive, study page.

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China to boost forest-based bioenergy, helps win battle against desertification

Jia Zhibang, director of the State Forestry Administration announced today China will establish 13.33 million hectares of forests by 2020 to produce liquid and and solid biofuels for power generation and transport. The hectarage will rise from a planned 833,333 hectares in 2010 and provide enough biomass to produce over 6 million tonnes of biodiesel a year and power generators with capacity of 15 gigawatts. The energy forests will contribute massively to China's already successfull attempts aimed at reducing desertification.

The People's Republic recently presented its 'Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan', which raised targets for all types of biofuels. The forest-based bioenergy plan is part of this policy (earlier post), which may bring a large number of jobs to China's many farmers (previous post). Because the energy forests help fight desertification, they contribute positively to restoring the environment and may protect agricultural land.

Presenting the plan, Jia said the lipid- and starch-rich materials from the forests could be processed into liquids to make biodiesel and ethanol fuel, whereas woody biomass can be pelletized and used in power plants to replace coal, and thus reduce carbon dioxide emissions substantially. (More on China's biomass-fired power plants, here and here).

The country plans to produce more than six million tons of forest-based biodiesel and will increase the installed capacity of renewable, biomass-based power generation by more than 15 million kilowatts by 2020, Jia said. The potential of the country's forest-based bioenergy would thus be equivalent to 200 million tons of coal, the utilization of which would reduce the consumption of fossil energy by 10 percent. Ultimately, biomass can be used in carbon-negative energy systems (more here, here and especially here), and reduce carbon dioxide emissions even further.

Currently, China is home to more than four million hectares of oil plants nationwide, and 154 kinds of energy trees could produce seeds containing more than 40 percent of oil, with total production of the seeds totaling five million tons. Another 57 million hectares of waste land are available and suitable for planting trees for the production of forest-based bioenergy, according to Jia.

Jia said the administration would develop the forest-based bioenergy together with the China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's grain importer and exporter COFCO and the State Grid Corporation of China.

Jia's collegue, Zhu Lieke, vice-director of the State Forestry Administration (SFA), said Chinese land vulnerable to desertification is dwindling by about 1200 square kilometers per year thanks to years of afforestation efforts. China now tops the world in afforestation with 54 million hectares of man-made forest, according to Jia:
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The nation has been promoting voluntary tree-planting and forestation, closing the forest area to allow for natural regeneration and fostering of young forests, said Jia. Since China began advocating voluntary tree-planting and forestation 26 years ago, the Chinese people have planted 49.2 billion trees, he added. The Chinese government will endeavor to double the total forest annual growth in 30 to 50 years, to one billion cubic meters, Jia said.

China's aim to expand its acreage of trees suitable for providing feedstocks for power plants and biodiesel makers comes down to an increase by 16 times during the 2010-2020 period.

China had a total of 622 gigawatts of installed generating capacity as of late 2006. Output for diesel totaled 117 million tonnes last year. China has been anxious to boost its use of alternative energy in recent years as its heavy reliance on burning coal to meet energy needs has caused serious environmental problems. The government plans to reduce the percentage of coal in consumption to 66.1 percent by 2010 from 69.1 percent in 2005, while improve renewable energy usage, excluding hydropower, to 0.4 percent from 0.1 percent.

Xinhua: China to boost forest-based bioenergy - July 17, 2007.

People's Daily Online: China sees shrinking deserts: official - July 17, 2007.

Reuters: China anxious to boost energy output from forest - July 17, 2007

Biopact: China announces 'Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan': new crops, higher targets - July 04, 2007

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Zambian scientists call for investments in biofuels

Zambian scientists researching the use of biofuel as an alternative energy source presented results from studies showing the country has the capacity to produce a large amount of biofuels. This, however, would depend on proper investment to produce the renewable energy.

The analyses to this effect were conducted by the University Of Zambia School Of Agriculture and the National Institute for Scientific Research. According to the studies’ findings, the country has the capacity for the large scale production of biofuels based on a range of crops.

The call comes after the National Association for Peasant and Small-Scale Farmers of Zambia (NAPSSF) announced that it wants about 300,000 small-scale farmers to start growing biofuel crops on more than 150,000 hectares of land next year, in order to reduce rural poverty and cut energy costs.

Zambia is one of the countries that make Africa's sustainable and long-term biofuel potential so large (earlier post); the country has been identified by Biopact as having vast opportunities, for several reasons. Key points:
  • Zambia has some 58 million hectares of potential arable land
  • The country's farmers currently use 5.2 million hectares of this, or around 9%
  • Zambia has excellent agro-ecological conditions for a range of crops, including sugarcane, sweet sorghum, maize, cassava, groundnut, jatropha and tropical grass species
  • 63.5% of people there live in the countryside and in 2030, more than half of Zambia's population will still live in rural areas
  • 85% of the nation's people try to make a living in the agricultural sector but some 50% of all people are un- or underemployed.
  • 86% of all Zambians (the vast bulk of the rural population) lives below the poverty line
In such a situation, biofuel production promises to bring massive chances for poverty alleviation and rural development. Currently, because of a lack of access to modern farming inputs, agricultural yields are extremely low. This situation is such that with truly minor interventions, such as micro-doses of fertilizer, crop yields can in some cases be doubled (as was recently demonstrated in a study amongst smallholders in neighboring Zimbabwe). But in order for small farmers to make such micro-interventions, they need extra incomes - which can be provided by biofuels, which allow them to diversify their crop portfolio.

The Zambian scientists made a basic study on sweet sorghum, to show the potential for biofuels in the country. They demonstrate the crop is environmentally friendly, requiring low water inputs; moreover, besides biofuels (sugar for ethanol), it also yields food and fiber. (See the ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuels initiative based on improved, high yield and drought-tolerant sweet sorghum).

The other crop that has undergone scrutiny in recent months is Jatropha curcas, which has, however, attracted controversy from local farmers, who called for caution in its use. Although the plant can grow well in the country, there were concerns from farmers that jatropha had a tendency to overgrow other vegetation which can cause serious environment problems:
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Sweet sorghum on the other hand has now been identified as a crop that can be used for both food production and as a source for ethanol.

The two research institutes have called for increased funding towards research to find alternative sources of energy which would provide the country relief from spending large sums of money importing fossil fuel for energy.

Zambia is highly dependent on imported oil. With high prices, the entire economy is impacted, because all fuels all economic sectors, from agriculture and industry, to transport and services. According to the UN, some poor countries are now spending twice the amount of money on importing oil, than on health care.


Afriquenligne: Zambian scientists call for investment in biofuel energy - July 16, 2007.

Biopact: ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuels initiative - video - May 28, 2007

Biopact: Fertilizers boost crop production amongst smallholders in Zimbabwe - April 13, 2007

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Jane's Intelligence Review: "biofuels bring new global security risks"

It is interesting to see how some experts from a particular knowledge field - in this case strategic and geopolitical insight - make assessments about biofuels, a sector they are not particularly familiar with. This often leads to them either stating the obvious, painting an incomplete picture or making unsound analyses.

An excellent example comes from Jane's Intelligence Review, a publication on intelligence and defence. Everyone wants to have something to say about biofuels, so the defence and intel consulting business does so too. Independent analyst Anna Gilmour says "that while biofuels offer many advantages for producing countries, the potential long-term environmental degradation and increased competition for land and water resources means it cannot be viewed as a risk-free alternative to non-renewable fuels."

Of course, biofuels aren't risk-free, but the question is: what is the alternative? Why are biofuels produced in the first place? What if we don't produce them and just keep relying on oil? Will the risks be lower? Does continued oil dependency bring lower energy security risks? Are sky-high oil prices good for the economy and the poor? Obviously not. Biofuels are produced in order to mitigate the much bigger risks of increased oil prices, the potential socio-economic disasters brought by climate change and to reduce poverty and underdevelopment. But Gilmour does not make a comparative analysis, so her assessment of the risks of biofuels sadly remains rather marginal.

Earlier, a much more thorough assessment of the geopolitics and security risks of biofuels written by Clingendael (Netherlands Institute of International Relations) showed that - because they replace oil, which entails far more risks for conflict - biofuels substantially reduce geopolitical and strategic risks on virtually all parameters. Biofuels bring jobs to the rural masses, reduce migration pressures, bring income to the poor and increased food security, and they are produced in more than hundred countries that can all become traders, whereas oil is supplied by only a handful of (unstable) countries. (See: Future fuels and geopolitics: the role of biofuels - *.pdf).

Gilmour says greater use of land for biofuel production will inevitably mean a reduction in land for food crops at a time when the rising global population is putting increased demand on food and water supplies.

Note that this assessment is not based on a broad set of scenarios, some of which demonstrate that biofuels may bring new opportunities for high input agriculture to farmers who currently rely on extensive low input practises (such as slash-and-burn). Technically speaking, increased incomes from biofuels could eventually reduce the amount of land devoted to both food and fuel. Moreover, there is a vast expanse of land in the developing world, currently not under production, simply because it wasn't interesting to invest in it until now. Lack of investment, not lack of land is the problem.

Authoritative and scientific analyses, of which Gilmour apparently isn't aware, clearly demonstrate that without endangering food, fiber, fuel, forest, land and water resources for local people, the planet can support the production of 1500 Exajoules of internationally tradeable bioenergy and biofuels, by 2050. This is while taking into account rapidly growing populations. 1500EJ is roughly 3.5 times the total amount of energy currently consumed by the entire world (400EJ) from all sources (coal, oil, gas, nuclear):
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But governments definitely have to play a role in ensuring that infrastructures and policies make it possible to invest in this vast untapped land resource. Else, a rush on the most accessible land will occur.

Then, Gilmour makes a very strange point:
“While there is clearly a growing demand for the conversion to biofuel production it could also expose governments to rising social unrest, as food prices rise and poorer members of society reap few benefits from the new ‘wondercrop’. Apart from the social unrest and job losses, the expansion of this industry has the potential to increase internal conflict between governments and non-state armed groups in countries such as Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines."
A questionable assessment, because the obvious contrary is more likely: due to their labor intensity, biofuels bring plenty of jobs, as Brazil has already demonstrated (6 million new jobs in the sector; Indonesia plans 2.5 million, Nigeria 3 million).

If Gilmour points to land-conflicts in certain countries, they are not the result of growing biofuel needs, they are the result of bad governance. In Indonesia, examples show that smallholders have sold their land to palm oil companies, to make a good profit with which they can now feed and educate their children for the first time. Alternatively, smallholders themselves make unprecedented profits on the biofuels boom.

Gilmour then takes a very local fait divers from Colombia, a narco-state under civil war, that has nothing to do with biofuels as such: "large tracts of supposedly unused land are actually used for illegal cultivation of coca plants, from which cocaine is extracted. With most of Colombia’s non-state armed groups heavily dependent on the lucrative cocaine trade, efforts to repurpose this land towards biofuel production would be strongly opposed on several fronts."

She continues:

"The Colombian government lacks the military strength to provide adequate protection to workers responsible for clearing coca and in convincing farmers to give up the lucrative coca crop. Also, the likely retaliation from insurgents will pose a long-term challenge to the development of Colombia’s biofuel industry", adds Gilmour.

Clearly, this is a highly localised problem that has nothing to do with biofuels as such. Not all countries in the South produce vast amounts of cocaine.

What we need is a much more robust analysis on the opportunity costs of biofuels. Why are biofuels produced? What if we don't produce them and just keep relying on oil? Will the risks be lower?

With high oil prices, prices for all productive sectors go up, from agriculture to industry and services, including basic food commodities; they jeopardize national governments' abilities to invest in social programmes and in poverty alleviation (already some developing countries spend twice the amount on oil, than on health).

Moreover, not using biofuels means greenhouse gas emissions keep rising much more quickly, with the potentially disastrous results we all know about: mass migration, drought, sea-level rise, conflict and war.

It is strange to see an independent analysis for such an authoritative publication making such a rather superficial analysis on one of the greatest transformations of our times.

But from what Gilmour writes, it is clear that some countries need strong policies and better governance, to ensure that paramilitary groups and gangs don't keep doing what they usually do: forcing people into labor or stealing their belongings (such as land). That should be so even without biofuels.

Also note: critics and cynical people would say that Jane's is in the business of creating risks. If there aren't such risks, they can always be imagined. If Jane's were to compare the risks of oil dependence with those of biofuels, it would however come to a more balanced view on energy risks.


Jane's: Pursuit of biofuels bring new global security risks - July 16, 2007.

Clingendael International Energy Program, Lucia van Geuns: Future Fuels and Geopolitics: the Role of Biofuels [*.pdf] - December 9, 2007.

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