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Food Vs. Fuel: A Potential Miracle Crop May 15, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Energy, environment, Oil.
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The bipolar nature of the energy crisis took us down last year (rising oil prices), up at New Years (biofuels!), and back down again (biofuels = starvation). For example, the European Union is being pressed to reconsider aspects of its biofuels mandate as well as certain sources of biofuel (e.g., palm oil), because research indicates allegedly profound negative impacts not only on the environment, but also on food supplies. While that gets worked out, the political imperative of starving citizens is not to be minimized.

Could we be left only with Hobson’s choices? No Plan B?

Welcome, Jatropha curcus. Jatropha is a succulent plant native to South America that needs little water, lousy soil, and little to no fertilizer. It’s poisonous, but the bad news stops there. Its seeds yield 40% oil, which can easily be turned into biodiesel. It’s easily twice as productive as corn for fuel purposes, and needs far fewer inputs.

Jatropha can be intermingled with other crops; a New York Times story tells of a Malian farmer who doubled his income by planting every seventh row with jatropha. The plant halts soil erosion. Jatropha likes two feet of rain in a year, but it can withstand three years of drought by dropping its leaves. Best of all, it can be grown on heretofore unarable land in places like the Sahel.

BP and the British biofuel firm D1 Oils have invested millions of dollars in jatropha cultivation. Governments in India, Cambodia, and other developing nations are pushing Jatropha hard, as a simultaneous solution to energy needs, hunger, soil depletion, and rural poverty. One acre will yield about 325 gallons of biodiesel per year.

June 9-11 the world’s enthusiasts will huddle at the second Annual JatrophaWorld confrence in Miami. It figures to be an interesting event: green sustainability zealots will mingle with sellers of get-rich-quick business plans. So far, the problems with Jatropha include no apparent show-stoppers, only things that can be solved with a bit of research.


The Mouse That’s Roaring April 25, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in automotive, Energy.
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Fiat’s new 500 model won Europe’s 2008 Car of the Year award, and it was probably richly deserved. The car is based on the classic post-war 500 Topolino (little mouse), a stylish two-seater that rivaled the VW Beetle in people’s hearts, minds, and garages.

FiatGroupSpA happens to be headquartered in the basket-case country of western Europe, and this makes its financial turnaround all the more remarkable. These days, the just-reported 14% jump in profit and 13 consecutive quarters in the black are amazing statistics for any car company.



Hooray for Ford! Detroit News, Get Some Clues April 25, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Energy.
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I suppose the only thing worse than being in the newspaper business these days, is being in the newpaper business in Michigan.

The state is thoroughly depressed, and not just economically. Unlike Ford Motor Company, whose CEO Alan Mulally continues to work his magic by embracing reality, the Detroit News remains as mired in the Permian Age as does Ford’s crosstown rival. (Hint: it makes Buicks.)

An editorial “New fuel economy rules unfair to auto industry” in the April 23 edition says it all. Nevermind the standards are decades overdue, and might be decades delayed as were their predecessors in the late 1970s. The illogic and unreality behind the editorial, which speaks for certain automakers and definitely for certain chairmen of the House Energy Committee, is appalling.

If the car industry had adopted the same can’t-do attitude in 1941, we’d all be driving Volkswagens now.

“General Motors has said meeting the 2020 fuel mandate could add $6,000 to the price of a vehicle and require a shift to more hybrid vehicles, while Ford has said it expects to change its lineup to include smaller and lighter vehicles.”

My comment: good on you, Ford! The Explorer not sustainable? Do ya think?

“As the experience of the last few months and the oil shocks of the 1970s have demonstrated, gasoline prices are far more effective than fuel economy rules in shifting consumer demand toward more fuel efficient vehicles.”

Gas consumption has fallen, but not nearly enough. We’ll get a gas tax passed in this country only when the last molecule of shale oil is wrung from deposits under West Palm Beach, Florida. Until then, we had better have a different Plan A.

“The federal government instead continues to draw a bead on the auto industry and is doing nothing to ensure that there will be a market for the smaller, lighter vehicles its fuel mandates will require if gasoline prices decline from their current levels.”

Time to shed the victim mindset, and make a high mileage car that people want to buy.

“Nor has Congress adopted language that would pre-empt states such as California and more than a dozen others from imposing even stiffer fuel economy standards on the industry — balkanizing the auto market and adding even more costs. The administration should make it clear that there will be one national fuel economy standard set by the federal government — not a number of different states.”

A canard, because these states want to impose a single common standard. The states, led by a Republican governor, are acting precisely because the current temporary occupants of the White House will not act. If the Detroit News had not endorsed the current president back in 2000,  perhaps they would not have to take this silly position in 2008.

“In nominal terms, national gasoline pump prices are at record highs, though adjusted for inflation they are below 1979 levels. And analysts note that the relatively high gasoline prices are causing motorists to cut back on driving and gasoline consumption, prompting some to suggest a return to $3-a-gallon prices.”

This is risible. If Americans drive less, it doesn’t mean Chinese and Indians are likely to follow suit.  Chinese citizens bought almost 9 million cars last year, a 21% year-over-year jump. They are now the world’s second-largest car market.  A return to rickshaws doesn’t seem likely just because Detroiters are hurting. No, they will buy up that slack oil supply.  It would certainly be tidy to have a tax on gas guzzling cars, wouldn’t it? Or feebates, as Amory Lovins has suggested.

Until the mugwumps “get it”, the world will continue to leave them behind. Whining about a return to the past won’t change the future.

“Our Energy Policy Has Not Been Very Wise” March 17, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in economics, Energy, environment, financial crisis, Freedom From Mid-East Oil, Oil.
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President Bush has never spoken more truthfully than he did on March 14 at the New York Economic Club.

The president restated his belief that the absence of new refineries (true) and the prohibitions against drilling in Alaska (false) are the major causes behind the record oil prices Americans are paying today.

To his credit, he got around to the issue of renewables: “And, look, I’m very — I’m an alternatives (sic) fuel guy, I believe that’s important. As a matter of fact, we’ve expanded — mightily expanded the use of ethanol; a slight consequence if you rely upon corn to grow your hogs, but nevertheless it’s a — it is a policy that basically says that we got to diversify.”

That’s a curious imperative, coming from an executive who has threatened to destroy the tax exemptions for the fledgling renewables industry to preserve one corner of the favorable tax treatment for the senescent fossil fuel industry.

Either way, the president says the nation has one addiction to oil and another to drugs. In the former case, he would deal with the addiction by increasing supply. In the latter, he continues the 50-year “war” to eliminate it.

As oil futures have now hit seven record-highs in seven market sessions, the government’s policies seem to be ineffectual, disjointed, and counter-productive. The ethanol fiasco combines the worst of government planning with the worst in free market economics, blending a zero-proof energy cocktail that is suppressing the nation’s economic recovery while stoking political unrest and inflation around the world.

That same day, Federal Reserve Director Bernanke took a break from the dismal economic picture to talk about the energy picture. He suggested that the U.S. might want to roll back the 54-cent per gallon ethanol tariff.

As anyone who recently has bought 15 ounces of Kellogg’s corn flakes for $4.19 knows, the corn ethanol subsidy has affected more than hog farmers. And the disjointed manner in which the free market has handled the ethanol boondoggle (50 closed ethanol distilleries this year) has compounded the problem.

Here is where it becomes very interesting: again, on the same day that Pres. Bush proclaimed himself an alternatives guy and the director of the Fed suggested we repeal the tariff, an officer of Petrobras, the state oil company of Brazil, said he could not raise gasoline prices because Brazilians would substitute sugar cane ethanol for gasoline.

Oh, happy day! Would that we could forfend but one daily gasoline price increase to put a little sugar in our tank. That would have to be a samba occasion.

Twenty percent of Brazilians drive flex-fuel cars instead of Yukons and Denalis, Torrents and Avalanches, Explorers and Trailblazers, Escalades and Armadas. Nine out of 10 new car sales in Brazil are flex-fuel.

Reuters reports: “Petrobras downstream director, Paulo Roberto Costa, said consumers in Latin America’s largest country would stop buying gasoline and switch to cheaper ethanol if the price of the fossil fuel was raised to match world levels after being frozen since late 2005.

“It doesn’t make sense hiking the price of gasoline abruptly if it will cause me a bigger loss of the market than what is already happening today,” he told reporters. “It’s possible that this year we’ll sell more ethanol than gasoline in Brazil.”

This issue of economic fungibility also was addressed by the President in New York: “You know, when I was overseas in the Middle East, people said, did you talk to the King of Saudi (sic) about oil prices? Of course I did. I reminded him… you better be careful about affecting markets — reminding him that oil is fungible; even though we get most of our oil, by the way, from Canada and Mexico, oil is fungible.”

It is indeed. Three days before, the Energy Department and the Energy Information Administration said that foreign demand would soak up declining U.S. consumption. Let’s hope the King of Saudi wasn’t paying attention.

Where will this end? At some point, both political parties in the American government must stop pandering to Iowans and Michiganders and do the Right Thing for the other 48 states and indeed, the world. Meanwhile, it’s delicious to see an oil executive acknowledge a different law of economics: the law of substitution.

More important, when and why will this end? January 2009 is a good guess, because after the election, no one will particularly “need” Iowa or Michigan for another four years. The policy of indulging (That’s a euphemism.) these two states finally will accurately be seen for what it long has been: an insupportable luxury. After a year of floundering with $5-a-bushel corn, $110-a-barrel oil, and $1.53-a-dollar Euros, when the pain experienced by the other 48 exceeds the value of Congressman Conyers’s vote and the endorsement of the 2012 caucuses, then and only then will our government move.

There is yet reason to believe in those two now regrettably hackneyed qualities: hope and change.

James Hansen’s Slide Show February 9, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Energy, environment, Freedom From Mid-East Oil.
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Jim Hansen has posted this slide show about the current state of global warming. It is brief, and well worth reviewing

He cites a number of scenarios, and in one uses the phrase “business as usual” (emphasis added).

The best ironies are unintentional. The human race is not thoroughly mobilized to deal with this threat. This is not becauses millions of people have taken to the streets around the globe to protest action on global warming. Rather, the interests of business, acting through its agents in governments, has stopped action in certain countries. Where progress has been made, notably in Europe, business is affirmatively part of the solution.

Royal Dutch Shell Acknowledges Reality February 2, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Energy.
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The CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Jeroen van der Veer recently published an open letter describing the world’s energy situation. Coming from a major oil company, such candor would have been unthinkable a few years back.

…the world’s current [energy] predicament limits our room to maneuver. We are experiencing a step-change in the growth rate of energy demand due to rising population and economic development. After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand.

He believes that nuclear and tar sands are part of the solution–an assumption with which the Academy vehemently disagrees–but his call for planned international cooperation, rather than a zero-sum, winner-take-all scramble for energy resources, is wise and refreshing.

van der Veer even goes so far as to say that in a hundred years, oil will be a very small portion of the world’s energy solution.

It is impossible to deal with the energy situation without affecting the climate change equation, either positively or negatively. In this context the isolation of the United States, as the only industrialized nation not to have signed the Kyoto Accords, becomes all the more perplexing. this week, ExxonMobil announced for the second year an all-time record annual profit for a corporation — some $40.6 billion. Through the greenish smoke of PR, it remains clear that Exxon is using precious little of this windfall to plan for the sort of future upon which we all depend.