It's no secret that ramping up (pdf) corn ethanol production has been rife with problems. The net energy gain from corn-based ethanol is pretty small at best—its corrosive impact on most pipelines usually requires you to truck it to market. And, of course, the use of corn for fuel has been driving up food and feed prices.
But I think it's best to think of corn as the beginning of the ethanol journey, not the destination. There is a furious R&D effort to develop enzymes—the bug or bugs—that can be used to break down cellulosic materials cheaply.
Now, Craig Venter, the man best known for his controversial for-profit contribution to the human genome mapping race, claims to be on the brink of producing a synthetic bug that can do just that, and more. BusinessWeek reported last week that Venter "believes he is within weeks or months of creating the world's first free-living artificial organism in his laboratory." His bug could potentially clean up dirty fossil fuels and help make ethanol.
In his typical down-to-earth fashion, Venter jokes that he's "going from the gene king to the oil king." It's unlikely, though, that any concrete application for his new bug will emerge for quite some time.
But this is about much more than any particular technology, or even the energy business as a whole. Some say Venter is out to become the "Bill Gates" of artificial life, which has huge ethical and legal implications. Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, tells BusinessWeek that synthetic biologists may be "manipulating nature without knowing where they are going.... There are arrogant scientists, and our friend Venter may be one of them." Time will tell if Caplan's fears are vindicated.
FP contributor Dan Drezner, citing reliable sources in Europe, tells a brief story about Russo-German diplomacy:
Angela Merkel apparently has a fear of dogs. Vladimir Putin is aware of this fact. Therefore, whenever Putin meets with Merkel in Moscow, he makes sure his pet dogs are in the room.
Press accounts suggest this to be true. President Putin loves his dogs, and he appears to use them to intimidate Chancellor Merkel during tough negotiations. This was the initial test, in January 2006:
Putin, who already met Merkel several times when she was opposition leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, said his meeting with her had taken place "in a very good atmosphere." Earlier, Putin, who likes dogs, had given Merkel a gift of a small toy black and white dog, which had a short leash. Merkel, however, does not like dogs - she was bitten by one when she was young and has since kept her distance, according to an aide. German diplomats said they were unsure how to interpret the gift.
One year later, in January 2007, Putin brought in diplomatic reinforcements during a dust-up with Merkel over energy supplies:
Later, when Koni, Putin's black Labrador, made her domineering entrance, Merkel nervously, or perhaps wishfully, commented in Russian, "Now the dog is going to eat the journalists." [...] Kremlin critic and journalist Yulia Latynina, writing for "Yezhednevny zhurnal," said the "friendly meeting in Sochi between Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Labrador Koni" left her bewildered.
Putin apparently told the German chancellor, "I don't think the dog will scare you. She won't do anything bad, she likes journalists."
I wonder what Vlad does to try to intimidate U.S. President George W. Bush. Show him the latest poll numbers?
In the last week of May, ExxonMobil's CEO proposed shelving plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Canada's Mackenzie Valley to the existing pipelines in Alberta, which continue down into the United States. The cost projections for the project have apparently shot up, in large part due to rising steel prices.
If the project ends up nixed or shelved, it could be a rather big deal. According to energy analyst Andrew Weissman, this is the "biggest energy story of the year" thus far. He told MarketWatch:
About 10% of our future natural gas supplies will disappear as a result.... It's like we know there's a hurricane coming into the Gulf of Mexico that will wipe out all the natural gas there. The gas will just sit in the ground."
It's clear the United States will need to import more natural gas. U.S. natural gas production has basically remained flat for the last decade, fluctuating between 511 and 555 billion cubic feet between 1996 and 2006 (PDF). Even if that number rises, it probably won't offset the need for more imports.
Another big reason this story could (or should) get more attention is that natural gas is the main substitute for coal in electricity generation. Replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas is probably a good idea as Congress and presidential candidates consider policy options on climate change.
All that said, the talk about nixing the project could just be a negotiating tactic to get more Canadian government subsidies to build the pipeline. The Globe and Mail's initial report on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's comments make it seem as though a juicier subsidy package could change Tillerson's mind.
After several years of being buffeted by the Terrorism Tsunami and Hurricane Bush, the Middle East this week was struck by a non-metaphorical weather event: Cyclone Gonu. This latest storm, however, left only a slight imprint upon the region—evacuations and a small number of deaths and temporary port closings in Oman, and a brief uptick in the price of crude oil. Here's what Gonu looked like from above:
(Hat tip: National Geographic)
Today was another big day for the booming Chinese solar industry. Shares of LDK, a solar wafer manufacturer based in China, went on sale today on the New York Stock Exchange. The IPO did somewhat better than expected, with shares going for as high as $30 in a flurry of heavy trading. Another highly anticipated IPO, for Yingli Green Energy, is likely to happen later this month. It'll be (at least) the sixth Chinese solar company to raise capital in the U.S. stock markets.
There's actually a bit of a debate among stock market analysts, however, on just how viable the Chinese solar industry really is. Those bearish on solar point to a worldwide shortage of high-grade polysilicon, which has weakened demand by keeping prices high for several years now. And earlier this week, SolarFun Power, another Chinese solar manufacturer, posted disappointing first-quarter earnings. That put a damper on some investors' enthusiasm for Chinese solar manufacturers, but apparently not enough to ruin LDK's day in the sun.
LDK boosters point out that the company has already amassed a reasonable quantity of polysilicon, and that its fundamentals are solid. Couple that with China's low labor costs, burgeoning engineering prowess, enormous energy needs, and its environmental crises, and you've got a potential winner to follow other Chinese solar success stories like China SunEnergy. This is definitely a sector to watch.
The big news out of today's speech by U.S. President George W. Bush is that the United States is apparently bowing to international pressure and will work on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. Bush's plan for moving forward:
By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases. To help develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China.
After six years of no progress, this would seem a welcome change. I'm skeptical, however. The United States has been pushing back against German efforts to put a more stringent climate change regime in place during the upcoming Group of Eight summit. This is clearly, as critics are already pointing out, an effort to take control of that process and water it down. And with only 18 months left in office, it's pretty much impossible that a big initiative like Bush is proposing would get anywhere.
That said, it's a good sign that even a noted skeptic like President Bush is finally recognizing a need to at least pretend to care about this issue. It'll make things easier for his successor to do what is necessary.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just hosted 40 mayors from around the globe (and Bill Clinton) for a climate conference in New York. The chattering classes are all atwitter that Bloomberg is unveiling what might be important environmental positions for a possible presidential run.
And I, for one, think the mayors in attendance are doing a great deal of good, serious work on the issue—encouraging smart ideas on more efficient energy use, greener businesses, less traffic—and getting the private sector involved in a big way. These local actors have certainly been far more innovative and proactive in advancing these issues than most national leaders around the world.
But my favorite moment from the conference, which was all about encouraging cities to be more energy conscious: During Bloomberg's speech in Central Park, all the street lights were left on. In the middle of the afternoon.
Lost in the hubbub surrounding Condoleezza Rice's Russia visit earlier this week was some disturbing news out of Moscow. Pretty much as soon as Rice boarded her plane to return home, Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom announced that it would help build a nuclear energy research facility in Burma. The facility will have a 10MW light-water reactor, use 20 percent-enriched uranium-235, and have processes for storing nuclear waste. Russia plans on training some 300 scientists for the center.
With such low-grade uranium, and with a relatively limited reactor, the center will not have capabilities to develop a nuclear weapons program. Also, Burma is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Moreover, Rosatom promises its activities will be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Nevertheless, the news is troubling on many fronts. Russia has history of exporting nuclear science to regimes that the West considers sketchy. And for the past 45 years, Burma has been controlled by a military-led junta that Human Rights Watch describes as one of the most repressive in the world. Since 1996, when the United States and the EU imposed sanctions on Burma for its human rights violations, Russia has become a leading supplier of weapons to Burma's military.
According to The Irrawaddy (a Thailand-based publication about Burma that FP covered last year), Burma has been trying to develop a nuclear energy since 2000, when science and technology minister U Thaung visited Moscow to solicit support. The resulting agreement fell through when questions arose about how the impoverished Burmese would pay for Russia's assistance. But now, evidently, Burma's vast natural gas reserves have provided the necessary capital.
So far, the cost and specific location of the project has not been disclosed. And obviously, it will be some time before ground is broken, and even more time until the facility is up and running. But still, this is something to watch closely. Very closely.
NATO is considering sending its armed forces to protect oil and gas facilities in the developing world. Jamie Shea, director of policy planning at the office of NATO's secretary general, made the announcement at a press conference in London earlier today.
[W]e are looking very actively at using our maritime resources... [NATO wants to see] how we can link up with oil companies."
Shea revealed that NATO had discussed the idea with private oil companies such as Dutch Royal Shell and British Petroleum (BP), the second and third largest western oil firms respectively. He also admitted to raising the idea of NATO forces protecting natural gas facilities in Qatar.
On the list of bad ideas in world relations, this ranks pretty high. When the people of a desperately poor nation (such as Nigeria) see western firms leeching their nation's mineral wealth away, they tend to draw a simple conclusion: These companies are heartless profit-seekers with no regard for human life or welfare. Sending NATO forces to protect such corporations would cement the perception that western countries care only about securing energy supplies. After all, we've tried this experiment before; the whole concept harks back to the disastrous gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century. Think again, Mr Shea!
Passport noted a couple of weeks ago that the price of beer could soon soar due to the increasing demand for biofuels, especially ethanol. Rising prices for the alternative fuel's natural ingredients, notably corn, are causing the displacement of barley crops. And barley happens to be a key ingredient in beer, so the price of the amber beverage goes up as a result. We also speculated that widespread use of ethanol-powered cars, which may actually produce more ozone than their gas-guzzling counterparts, could lead to slightly more deaths each year. So, there's a public health trade-off here. Ethanol might cause more deaths from air pollution. But higher beer prices probably lower demand for beer, which means that the number of traffic accidents and alcohol-related deaths will presumably decrease. But what if the very process of making beer could produce clean energy?
A team of scientists from Australia's University of Queensland and Foster's, the beer maker, are teaming up to generate clean energy from brewery wastewater. With a $115,000 (A$140,000) grant from the Queensland government, the scientists will install a microbial fuel cell at a Foster's Group brewery near Brisbane. The 660-gallon fuel cell, which is essentially a battery in which bacteria feed continuously on the organics in the brewery wastewater, will be able to produce two kilowatts of electricity. That's enough to power a household. The cell will also produce "clean water and renewable (non-polluting) carbon dioxide." Considering that Australia is facing its worst drought ever recorded and a massive water crisis, this is certainly promising news. And the best part of all: Aussies will finally be able to claim that they are drinking beer for environmental reasons.
An interesting story in today's Washington Post takes aim at an unlikely culprit in the battle to stop global warming: U.S. women. According to the Post, U.S. men are much more likely to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which consume less electricity and last longer than incandescent bulbs, than are their female partners:
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed that while women are more likely than men to say they are "very willing" to change behavior to help the environment, they are less likely to have CFL bulbs at home [...] In groceries and drugstores, where 70 percent to 90 percent of light bulbs historically have been sold and where women usually have been the ones doing the buying, CFLs have not taken off nearly as fast as they have in home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, where men do much of the shopping.
So what explains the gender gap? Energy Star Director Wendy Reed guesses that "women are much more concerned with how things look. We are the nesters." Women are apparently less willing than their husbands to put up with fewer lumens (although the latest CFLs are supposedly just as bright if not brighter than incandescents). But it seems there's also a widespread failure to communicate about this difference in preferences:
The guy typically brings a CFL home and just screws it into a lamp in the bedroom, without discussing it with his wife," [energy efficiency market researcher My] Ton said. "She walks in, turns on the light and boom -- there is trouble. That is where the negative impressions begin, especially when the guy puts it into the bedroom or the bathroom, the two most sacred areas of the home."
I'm curious to know if the CFL gender gap exists even in other countries like Germany and Japan, where far more people use the energy-efficient bulbs. And as couples in these places have gone increasingly green in their light bulb choices, have they also had to learn to communicate better?
We witnessed the tens of thousands of demonstrators decrying the rapidly (and exorbitantly) rising price of corn in the "tortilla protests" in Mexico City earlier this year. The protests came about as a result of the growing demand for corn-based ethanol, the Bush administration's biofuel of choice. But now there appears to be a new dietary staple under threat from the rising demand for ethanol: German beer.
Der Spiegel Online reports that a 2006 barley shortage will raise the wholesale price of German beer this May. Many brewing industry lobbyists attribute the price rise to farmers forgoing barley for corn in order to satisfy the global demand for biofuels, especially from the United States. In the past year, the price of barley has doubled on the German market, from €200 to €400 per ton.
But it's not just Germany that is set to see soaring beer prices. The chief executive of Heineken (the Dutch brewer) warned in February that the expanding biofuel sector was starting to cause a "structural shift" in European and U.S. agricultural markets, which could precipitate a long-term upward shift in the price of beer. Already, futures prices for European malting barley have risen since last May by 85 percent to more than €230 a ton, and barley production in the United States has fallen to 180.05 million bushels (in 2006)—the lowest level since 1936. Global stockpiles of barley have shrunk by a third in the last two years. All of this augurs ill for beer drinkers, who may soon be paying significantly more for their pints.
Tensions are rising in Tarija, a southern state of Bolivia, in a dispute over the lucrative Margarita gas field. A judge ruled yesterday that the field (operated by Spanish energy giant Repsol) lay within the O'Connor province, enraging inhabitants of rival province Gran Chaco, who claimed the field as their own. The conflict has already turned ugly—highlights included the kidnap of 70 police—and the ruling will only make things worse. Worryingly, the authorities seem to be in on the scrap. The feds in La Paz insist this is a local dispute, and that it's up to Governor Mario Cossio to solve it. For his part, Cossio says La Paz has let the problem fester to punish Tarija for its push towards regional autonomy:
The government acted to bring pressure on this departmental government and damage it... The only crime [the region] has committed it that it does not share the government's ideological vision of the country and that it represents one of the autonomous regions of Bolivia."
Whatever La Paz says, the buck must stop with President Evo Morales. Resolving such confrontations are the stuff presidencies are made of, and it's time that Evo and his cabinet showed their worth. Race and politics divide Bolivia, and huge gas reserves (the Margarita field alone is worth $45m, in a country where the average income is $3000) provide the perfect bone of contention. If the President can't mediate between warring factions, then he isn't worth a damn to his country.
May 1 will mark the first anniversary of the nationalization of the Bolivian gas industry. Now Morales has to prove he can distribute, as well as seize.
Ethanol-fueled cars will create an equal or even greater risk to public health than those powered by gasoline, according to a new study. Gasoline emissions are estimated to cause at least 10,000 premature deaths in the United States alone every year. Yet ethanol is no panacea, says Mark Z. Jacobson, the Stanford University atmospheric scientist who conducted the study.
Using sophisticated computer modeling techniques to simulate air quality in the United States in 2020, Jacobson found that vehicles fueled by a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E85) increase atmospheric concentrations of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, canceling out the reduction of carcinogens that are prevalent in gasoline but not in ethanol. What's more, E85 can increase ozone in some areas. And that means ugly smog and the deaths associated with higher levels of ozone. Jacobson projects that widespread adoption of E85 would lead to slightly higher mortality rates in the United States (+4 percent) and especially smog-friendly Los Angeles (+9 percent).
And it doesn't matter, according to Jacobson, whether ethanol is made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products—the results remain the same. So we have yet another reason to be skeptical of the prevailing obsession with ethanol. Well, what should we do? Jacobson highlights alternatives such as battery-electric, plug-in-hybrid and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles, which can derive energy from wind or solar power. He says, "These vehicles produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land."
Back on March 27th, we highlighted the fact that shortages of processed uranium have been driving the price of nuclear fuel to near-record levels in recent months. Now, The Washington Times reports that the price of uranium has jumped another 19 percent in just the last two weeks.
It hasn't been the best week for the nuclear industry. The Washington Post reports:
More than 500 security guards at the nation's only nuclear weapons assembly plant walked off the job just after midnight yesterday to protest what they said is a steep deterioration in job and retirement security since the government changed fitness standards for weapons-plant guards in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The contractor at the plant, BWXT Pantex in Carson County, Tex., replaced the striking guards with a contingency force that it says will secure the plant's weapons, nuclear materials and explosives as long as necessary.
"Contingency force?" That's reassuring. I guess it sounds better than "second string" or "substitute."
If "Green" is the next Red White and Blue, then Texas and California have an early lead in the race to redecorate. The American Wind Energy Association just released its 2006 status report, which includes a ranking of U.S. states by how much wind energy they generate. Last year, 2,400 new megawatts (MW) of wind energy came online in the United States. The 34 wind energy-producing states churn out a total of 11,603 MW. (For reference, the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant is rated at 816 MW.)
The top five states for wind energy are:
These states are moving aggressively on wind, but I'm disappointed to see that North Dakota, which ranks as highest in wind-energy potential, still lags at number 14 (although that may be due to change soon). See the full list, as well as the 16 states with no wind power after the jump.
What should we make of Iran's announcement that the country's production of nuclear fuel has reached "industrial scale"?
Arms control analyst Jeffrey Lewis reacted thusly to the news on his blog: "Whatever."
As Lewis goes on to explain in wonkish detail, there are good reasons to be skeptical of Iran's enrichment prowess. After all, getting enough material to build a bomb is extremely difficult. (Lewis coauthored the cover story on how a pickup team of terrorists could build a crude nuclear bomb for FP's November/December 2006 issue.)
So why make these grandiose claims, if they're so easy to debunk? Most likely, as nuke expert David Albright explains to the New York Times, "Ahmadinejad is trying to demonstrate facts on the ground and negotiate from a stronger position." After all, it worked for North Korea.
It will be interesting to see how the Bush administration reacts to Iran's announcement. As recently as March 27, the State Department's Nicholas Burns was essentially mocking the Iranians' lack of technical acumen:
I think the Iranians have had a considerable degree of difficulty in proceeding with their enrichment experimentation," he says. "They have made these fantastic claims . . . and yet according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, they have not been able to manage quite as well as they thought they would."
That, however, was before Iran played catch-and-release with 15 British sailors and marines, putting the U.S. military on edge. My guess? The Bush administration will keep plowing ahead on the diplomatic track at the United Nations and ratcheting up the financial pressure, while quietly signaling that it is ready to go the military route if Iran doesn't back down.
Fidel Castro has denounced the United States' recent drive towards ethanol production as "sinister" and a threat to the "hungry masses" of the world. Castro, who clearly chooses his reading material with great discernment, made the comments in an op-ed piece for Granma, a newspaper controlled by the Cuban Communist Party. Castro has been unwell for many months, but his hatred of the hegemon to the north appears undimmed. The story's headline read "Condemned to premature death by hunger and thirst more than three billion people." Castro described this figure as "cautious," and issued dire warnings about the West converting imported corn to ethanol while millions starve.
There is a grain of truth in Castro's words. Plenty of politicians are looking to cash in on the recent surge in eco-awareness. Ethanol is the perfect vehicle for such opportunists, who couldn't care less about the world's poor. But for my money, Castro is less concerned about the world's starving than about one man in particular: Hugo Chavez. Chavez's Venezuela currently supplies 13 percent of the US's oil imports and generously subsidizes Cuba to infuriate the United States. The last thing Chavez wants or Cuba needs is a greener U.S. energy policy dampening global oil demand. A few thousand words in Granma will go a long way to keeping Castro's sugar daddy sweet. Sick or not, El Commandante is a shrewd operator.
An extraordinary effort to circumnavigate the globe by boat in record time has run into tragedy. The crew of Earthrace, a Kiwi group of seamen, engineers, and supporters, set out in early March from Barbados in a their futuristic craft, the Turbo. The boat runs entirely on biodiesel, contains almost no metal in its hull, and is designed to slice through, rather than ride over, giant ocean waves. Nine days into the voyage, the Turbo accidentally sliced through an unlit fishing boat off the coast of Guatemala. Captain Pete Bethune's relates the scene in his "Captain's Blog":
Suddenly we are all awoken by a deafening series of crashes. I know instantly we’ve collided with something, and run out to see what’s happened. Anthony is already in the cockpit area. What lies behind is like a scene from a horror movie. We’ve driven right over the top of a 26ft fibreglass fishing skiff, and its tattered remains lie scattered around us. We can hear moans and yelling in the water.
Despite the crew's best efforts, one fisherman lost his life. After more than a week of detention by the Guatemalan Navy, acquittal of any wrongdoing by the local courts, and an emotional meeting and coming-to-terms with the survivors and the family of the deceased, the crew is back on the open sea.
Tragedy aside, the voyage so far has been a modern account of derring-do afloat, a modern-day version of a good sailor's yarn. Captain Bethune and the ground crew each keep fascinating blogs detailing their struggles with technology, nature, and various national bureaucracies in pursuit of the record. GPS technology even makes it possible to track the boat's progression in real time. Earthrace is 3500 nautical miles behind the record-setting, 75-day pace now, but still looks likely to complete the voyage and demonstrate the potential for more powerful, efficient, and environmentally friendly technologies. They definitely bear watching over the next two months.
(Hat tips: Popular Science Blog)
|35%||Demand for nuclear fuel currently not being met by nuclear fuel production worldwide [link]|
|4x||Amount China plans to increase its production of nuclear energy by 2020 [link]|
|3||Number of new nuclear power plants China needs to build per year until 2020 to meet that goal [link]|
|440||Number of nuclear reactors currently in operation worldwide [link]|
|82||Number of new nuclear power plants to be constructed in the next 10 years [link]|
|8||Number of countries that produce 80 percent of the world's uranium supply [link]|
|$64||Spot price of 1 lb of uranium (U308) in November, 2006 [link]|
|$95||Spot price of 1 lb of uranium (U308) on March 23, 2007 [link]|
|$1,787||Approximate cost of 1 kg of processed reactor-grade uranium, January 2007 [link]|
|Half-life of Uranium 238 [link]|
Here's a novel idea: Buy up carbon credits by the boat load, never emit any carbon, and thereby help to reduce the worldwide output of greenhouse gases. As the demand for credits soars, the value of individual credits will skyrocket, and carbon-reduction technologies will become more cost-competitive. At least, that's the theory.
Just last month, CO2quota.org set up a foundation to collect funds and purchase carbon credits—credits they plan never to use. In exchange for giving money, donors receive a certificate detailing how many tons of carbon they've kept out of the atmosphere. It costs about $19 to offset one ton of carbon emissions. (That's a bargain: $28 will buy you just one ton of carbon emissions using green tags.) CO2quota.org says that they buy their credits from The Nordic Power Exchange, and that Deloitte watches over their books.
Personally, I'm skeptical. To me, this whole scenario sounds about like ripping up $100 bills to help fight inflation. So far the foundation has offset roughly 185 tons of carbon emissions, which actually isn't much—it's the amount of carbon produced by about twenty average U.S. households in a year. I suspect that similar savings could be achieved if those who bought credits just switched to energy-saving lightbulbs.
But any environmental movement that relies on the generosity of individuals to donate, volunteer, or otherwise sacrifice our way to a greener future will never work, simply because the problem is too big. The only way green technologies will overtake their older counterparts is for the market to deem them to be more profitable.
On top of that, a system as flawed as the Kyoto Protocol can never be the key to solving our climate crisis. The only credits CO2quota is buying up are those issued to companies who cannot meet current CO2 Kyoto targets. Buying the credits will do nothing to help lower the current targets—and it will have no effect on the world's biggest carbon producers, China and the United States, since they don't fall under Kyoto's jurisdiction.
Ultimately, I hope a group like CO2quota proves me wrong. But first they should probably hire a copy editor:
“The more CO2 quotas we buy – the more expensive it gets for the industry to pollute with CO2. Hopefully, this will make them rethink the continued use of fusil fuels. Let’s buy back our climate!”
I'll take a rain check.
At the end of January, 75,000 angry people marched in Mexico City to protest the exorbitant price of tortillas. Like much of what happens in Latin America these days, it didn't attract much attention in the United States. But the discontent of poor Mexicans is just the tip of the iceberg in a region that depends heavily on corn.
What's going on? The ethanol boom in the United States is pushing up the price of corn, and that means food prices in the Western Hemisphere and around the world are also on the rise. For a Bush administration deeply worried about anti-American leftism in Latin America, that's a problem. As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute puts it in this week's Seven Questions:
Our refrigerators are stuffed with corn: milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, beef, yogurt, ice cream—these are all corn products. The risk is that by converting so much of our grain into fuel for cars, we will drive up the price of grain and create chaos in the world grain markets. This could mean urban food riots in scores of low- and middle-income countries around the world.
How can we avoid this dangerous situation? Read the interview to find out.
Last week, I blogged about how the lack of robust power grids in the rural areas of developing countries spurred some cell providers to experiment with solar, wind and biofuels to independently power individual cell phone towers.
Of course, this solves the problem of power for the cellular network, but—as Passport reader Bradley Loomis asked via email—if there isn't an electrical grid to power the cell towers, how do cell phone users in these areas charge their cell phones?
The answer lies in a business model that is quickly emerging across the globe, from China to Uganda: charging the cell phone batteries of rural customers in bigger cities for a fee. Check out LunchOverIP’s report on how Chinese businessmen are transforming their charge-for-a-fee service into a potentially charge-for-free ad-supported model (kind of like Google but without the whole Internet part). Jan Chipchase also has a great piece on the subject and some good photos of charging stations in Uganda.
Bradley, thanks for the question! More good comments on Slashdot.
Mobile phones are the lifeblood of economic and social networks in developing countries precisely because they don't require the vast infrastructure of wires, cables and stations that traditional landline phones need to operate. They do, however, require cellular towers, which run on electricity—a scarce commodity in the more rural areas of developing nations.
To compensate, at least two countries have developed novel, eco-friendly alternatives to a standard power grid for their cellular networks. In Namibia, a cell phone service provider is experimenting with hybrid wind/solar power cellular base stations to roll out service where a power grid doesn't exist. While the effort won't save any money, the key aim of cell companies is to beat the roll-out of traditional power grids by one to two years. It helps that, once they are set up, the stations run themselves:
In Namibia the turbine and solar panels will also be running the base station with traffic on it, the peripheral communications, vsat (satellite transmitter/receiver) and even the protective fencing around the site."
An experimental program in India, where the number of mobile subscribers is exploding but power is scarce, uses an interesting choice of feedstock for biofuel production instead of the wind/solar combination:
The scheme in India will use oil derived from plants such as cotton, a mahogany-like tree called neem and jatropha. Jatropha trees are already widely grown across India, specifically as a biofuel crop. The seeds of the plant are a traditional remedy for constipation.
And a parallel program is already underway in Lagos, Nigeria. But does all this work toward creating reliable mobile networks in the rural villages of Africa and South Asia really have an impact? Just ask the health workers in Rwanda—mobile networks there reduced the average response time between patient and health care worker from one month to a matter of seconds.
The company formerly known as British Petroleum has finally acknowledged that it tried to cut corners on environmental safety in order to save money prior to the March, 2005, Texas refinery blast that killed 15 people and injured 500. BP successfully lobbied against stricter environmental controls in Texas, which would have forced BP to upgrade the exhaust system that ultimately exploded. Susan Moore, BP's lobbying chief, was even given a $1,000 bonus for saving BP $150 million in monitoring and equipment upgrades.
BP has been in hot water over the past few years for some questionable practices. In addition to facing accusations that it tried to manipulate propane prices in 2004, the company has also had to close down part of its Alaskan operations in March, 2006, after around 267,000 gallons of crude oil leaked out of one of its pipelines and prompted a safety investigation by U.S. regulators. Then six months later BP had to excavate a 50-year-old underground pipeline after 1,000 barrels of gasoil spilled in Long Beach, California. Despite these glaring errors, BP still managed to make a $22.3 billion profit last year. If BP is not intending to move "Beyond Petroleum" just yet, let's at least hope that it will stop cutting corners when it comes to environmental safety.
Reports about Iran's nuclear program have been almost uniformly negative lately, and with good reason—Iran has continued to pursue enrichment in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. But as diplomatic rhetoric heats up, it is easy to forget just how difficult building a nuclear capability can be, whether for weapons or for electricity.
Thursday's International Atomic Energy Agency report (pdf) on Iran's nuclear activities is quite depressing. It highlights many areas where, in addition to defying the Security Council, Iran has been dragging its feet or refusing to comply with IAEA requests. For instance, Iran has "declined to agree at this stage" to remote monitoring at the Natanz enrichment plant, a safeguard the IAEA deems crucial. Iran's lack of cooperation doesn't necessarily imply nefarious intent—Iran says it needs clarification of the "legal basis" for remote monitoring, and has accepted "interim safeguards" instead—but to many, it certainly looks like Iran is hiding a weapons program.
However, the report also highlights the slow, incremental nature of nuclear technology development. Remember the Iranian centrifuges that blew up? Any number of things could have gone wrong: Human fingerprints can unbalance a centrifuge enough for it to break down, and problems with the tiny ball bearings they spin on can derail an entire project. The IAEA report confirms that the Iranians are moving carefully and slowly; they still probably have fewer than 500 centrifuges running, though they say they have almost finished installing another 300 or so. Iran has long maintained that it will install 3,000 centrifuges by March, a goal it will not meet if it continues at its previous rate.
This should not take attention away from Iran's blatant defiance of the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA, but—for now—there is some time to pursue options before Iran is even capable of building a nuclear bomb.
Forget Kyoto, carbon trading, and renewable resource targets.
Just change your light bulbs, says Australian Prime Minister John Howard. In an effort to reduce his country’s carbon emissions (and to simplify his party’s environmental policy) Howard’s government will outlaw the antiquated incandescent light bulb by 2010. Australians will have to use more energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, which are about five times more energy efficient and last much longer than standard bulbs.
(Hat tip: Slashdot)
Yesterday, President Putin used a wide-ranging and lengthy press conference to forcefully rebut growing criticism of his country's energy policies. Supply cut-offs and price increases, he argued, aren't an attempt to batter states in the near-abroad into toeing Russia's line; they're merely the rational application of market principles. It's actually a little more complicated than that, writes French energy banker Jérôme Guillet in a new Web exclusive for FP, but the big picture is that Europeans are unfairly blaming Putin for their own mistakes.
Energy isn't the only area in which Russia is causing concern. The Bond-esque intrigue surrounding the poisoning of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko got a little deeper this week when word leaked that the British government might point the finger at a former KGB officer. But during the press conference, Putin dismissed concerns about possible Russian state involvement in the affair:
He was not privy to any secrets, he had been convicted in the Russian Federation for abuse of office, specifically, for beating people when arresting them when he was a security man and for stealing explosives," Mr Putin said. "All the negative things he could have said about his previous employer, he had already said a long time ago."
Which makes our Thursday Video this week all the more intriguing. In it, Litvinenko makes an appearance from beyond the grave—as a shooting target for Russian special forces:
If he was so insignificant, why did someone feel strongly enough to use his face for target practice?
Maybe the war on terrorism is just provoking nostalgia for the clear-cut lines of the Cold War. But, with journalists turning up dead in Moscow, KGB hands running everything, and Red Army surplus missiles making their way to a certain U.S. adversary, it certainly seems like a resurgent Russia is getting back its old swagger:
(Video hat tip: Russia Blog)
One of the more interesting stories to come out of the Davos gnosh-fest this year was the charm offensive put on by Russia—and the fawning reception it met with from the world's business leaders. In years past, Putin's capos have avoided the cold mountain retreat, perhaps because the weather wasn't sufficiently different from that in Moscow. This year, however, a high-powered delegation attended, headed by a man whose name you'll be hearing more and more from now on: Dmitri Medvedev.
By most accounts, the suave young first deputy prime minister and Gazprom chairman did a fine job of defending Russia's economic record. He pledged his country's support for democracy (albeit "without unnecessary supplemental definitions") and argued that the ex-superpower is behaving responsibly on the world stage. Medvedev's remarks were filled with characteristic Russian warmth; as he put it, "we are not trying to push anyone to love Russia, but we will not allow anyone to hurt Russia." The charismatic Medvedev seemed successful in deflecting media attention, at least for now, from the dominant story lines of growing authoritarianism in the country and its use of energy supplies as a diplomatic weapon.
Medvedev's appearance was interesting for another reason: Many have him pegged as Putin's likely successor in 2008. To see who his competition is, and what the stakes are for Russia and the world, take a look at this week's List. In a web exclusive for FP, Moscow-based journalist Julian Evans gives a run-down of the leading candidates.
If the thought of buying dolphin-safe tuna and free-range chicken makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, just wait until you can fill your car up at a Terror-Free Oil station. The first such station will open next month in my home town of Omaha, Nebraska. The station is owned by the Terror-Free Oil Initiative, a group that promises to sell gasoline sourced from countries that "do not export or finance terrorism." What does that mean, exactly? According to the initiative's Web site, it appears to be loosely interpreted to mean oil sourced anywhere outside the Middle East, which they admit leaves them with "very few" options.
I wonder: Will the long-term benefits of so-called terror-free oil trump consumers' desires to pay as little as possible at the pump? My fellow Omahans seem to be greeting the station with healthy dose of Midwest skepticism. "It's really going to depend on the cost," one told a local news station.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.