Thursday, January 27, 2005

The sleeper renewable may turn out to bebiodiesel.

The amount of biodiesel used by diesel trucks and cars in the United States has grown 60-fold in the past five years, to 30 million gallons last year, said Amber Pearson, a spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board, which is run by soy farmers.

It's not just tree-huggers trying it. The U.S. Navy, Park Service, Department of Agriculture, Postal Service and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are among 500 agencies, organizations and companies using varying amounts of the fuel, including 100 schools and 30 colleges.

The Navy buys biodiesel to run its trucks, cars and ground equipment at bases in the Northwest, said Lt. Tommy Crosby, Navy public affairs officer: "We are becoming more environmentally friendly and less dependent on oil, using what mother nature gave us."

The number of people switching to biodiesel nationally could rise even higher starting this month because its price is expected to fall. A recently approved federal tax credit for distributors should reduce the cost of the fuel to close to that of regular diesel fuel. ...

Swapping tips in Internet chat rooms and during informal garage teach-ins, the biodiesel underground has learned what not many average drivers know: vegetable oil (even recycled restaurant grease) mixed with alcohol and lye can run any vehicle with a conventional diesel engine. Most diesel engines can also run on straight vegetable oil, but this gunks up the works in cool weather.

In some ways, biodiesel is like many other alternative fuels that have been tried across the country - hydrogen cells or electric batteries to power cars; corn cob combustion or solar panels to heat homes; windmills to generate electricity; and ethanol distilled from corn or sugar cane to extend gasoline.

But Walter J. Weber, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, said biodiesel has advantages over other alternatives because it's easy to produce. It employs commonly used farm products and runs engines available on the market today without any modifications.

"It would be feasible to operate all of the diesel engines in the U.S. today on at least partial biodiesel," said Weber. "This would bring reduced air pollution. And the beauty of biodiesel is that it's a renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels."

This sort of grass roots revolution is about our only hope as Congress (with few exceptions) has its head buried in the sand (or other, more colorful, places.)

Monday, January 24, 2005

Violence over water supplies has erupted in Kenyan where villagers in Kenya's central Rift Valley are fleeing their homes after at least 15 people were killed in weekend tribal clashes over water rights.

More than 2,000 displaced Kikuyu are now in Mai Mahiu township while a large but undetermined number of Maasai tribespeople were reported to have fled their homes for Narok, further west, the correspondent said.

The fighting, which started on Friday, pits crudely armed youths from the nomadic Maasai against Kikuyu farmers in the Mai Mahiu region, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) northwest of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. ...

The weekend fighting was sparked when Maasai herders invaded a farm owned by a local Kikuyu leader accused of diverting water of the Ewaso Kedong river to irrigate his crops.

The Maasai said the diversion had cause a shortage of water downstream for their animals.

The Maasai and Kikuyu communities have been at loggerheads over access to water and pasture since 1960s.

As the age of shortages continues, this sort of violence is very likely to increase. Water will become a resource more valuable than oil.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The effects of strained water resources are showing up in the courtroom.

A landmark State Supreme Court ruling is opening the floodgates to eroding Nebraska's longtime legal barriers between water in streams and water that's in aquifers, experts said Friday.

In a decision that will intensify the water-rights debate in Nebraska, the court said a Panhandle ranch can sue irrigators who pump from the ground for taking too much water and drying up a stream.

"We're in the era now of trying to put surface water and groundwater together, and the big issue is where the line will be drawn," said David Aiken, a water-law authority at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

As drought continues to grip the West, conflicts and lawsuits between water users along the Platte and Republican Rivers in Nebraska could spread to farmers and communities statewide, Aiken said.

At issue is a lawsuit filed in 2002 by Spear T Ranch near Bridgeport. Rancher Rex Nielsen of Gering said water pumped from neighbors' wells caused Pumpkin Creek to be dry most of the year, preventing Spear T from growing hay to feed its cattle.

The court recognized the ability of surface-water users to seek protection when adversely affected by groundwater pumpers, said attorney LeRoy Sievers of Lincoln. He represented the Nebraska State Irrigators Association in the case.

Some people have predicted wars over scarce water sources. Whether there are military battles or not, the legal wars have begun.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Cornell University research group had developed a new biological substitute for a petroleum product by making plastic from oranges.

The process uses limonene oxide and carbon dioxide and a newly discovered "helper molecule." Limonene is a carbon-based compound that is found in more than 300 plant species, but in oranges it makes up about 95 percent of the oil in the peel.

This is another indication that our modern society can continue on without oil--but only within certain limits. Bio-solutions are limited by the available farmland, and farmland is under pressure from expanding urban areas, dwindling water supplies, and overuse.

In "The Graduate" Dustin Hoffman was given just one word of advice by an overbearing neighbor--"plastics." It was very prescient advice for the time. For the Twenty-First century, the one world that everyone should know is "sustainability."

Sunday, January 09, 2005

General Motors has unveiled a prototype fuel cell car, the Sequel. Unlike previous fuel cell prototypes, the Sequel has the acceleration of a commercial car and can travel 300 miles before refueling, making it the first hydrogen prototype that can go as far between fill-ups as a conventional car because of a system of compressed hydrogen.

The drawback is the price. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's chief executive, said that "today a fuel cell car probably costs about - I'm going to be optimistic - $700,000." He added, "We're far from sticker price, eh?"

Environmentalists are skeptical. While G.M. says it will theoretically be able to mass-produce fuel cell vehicles affordably by 2010 - even though most competitors, which are also working on the technology, say it will be decades before such vehicles are viable. Meanwhile, for the 2003 model year, the average fuel economy of G.M.'s cars and trucks fell to its lowest point in two decades. For all auto makers, but the fuel economy of the average vehicle has declined - to 20.7 miles a gallon in the 2003 model year from 22.1 in 1988. And GM has lobbied vigorously to block more stringent fuel regulations and has taken major roles in lawsuits against California's antipollution rules.

Fuel cells remain problematic, especially if peak oil appears within the next few years.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Here is another, less talked about, but very unsettling sign of population overshoot: 27 million people are enslaved today worldwide -- more than at any time in history.

The most common form of slavery is debt bondage, in which a human being becomes collateral against a loan. With a massive population boom in regions of staggering poverty, some families have nothing to pledge for a loan but their own labor. With inflated interest rates, debts are often inherited, ensnaring generations. 15 to 20 million slaves are in debt bondage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Another common form of slavery is forced labor, where individuals are lured by the promise of a good job and instead find themselves enslaved. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, and small organized-crime rings fuel a booming international trade in human beings. Trafficking often flows from developing nations to the West. For instance, CIA estimates that 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US each year as slaves.

A form of slavery most common in South Asia is sex slavery, where girls forced into prostitution by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers earn money for the men in the family to pay back local-money lenders. Others are lured by offers of good jobs and then beaten and forced to work in brothels.

Slave labor produces goods we use every day. Examples include: sugar from the Dominican Republic, chocolate from the Ivory Coast, paper clips from China, carpets from Nepal, and cigarettes from India.

Slavery occurs in every continent in the world except Antarctica.

To learn more about this, visit the American Anti-Slavery Group site.