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Biofuel

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The new biodiesel boom

Last year, about a third of the biodiesel plants in the country went idle and output fell by half. But now federal tax credits and renewable energy mandates mean that biodiesel is booming again and plants are opening back up. Their hold on success is tenuous, though: It depends, the industry says, on Congress extending a tax credit that pushes fuel blenders to include biofuel. The current boom started when Congress restored that credit back in December. But that was only a one-year reboot. For the industry to revive completely, producers say they need a longer extension. Although plants are …

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In battle between fuel and food, food is losing worse than ever

Despite the backlash against ethanol in the U.S. and biodiesel in the E.U., global production of biofuels was up 17 percent in 2010. That's 27.7 billion gallons of liquid fuel for the year. (For reference, the U.S. uses 137 billion gallons of gasoline per year, though that's not directly equivalent because biofuels include biodiesel, and ethanol contains slightly less energy than regular gasoline.) What's driving this bumper crop? High oil prices, "which encouraged several large fuel companies, including Sunoco, Valero, Flint Hills, and Murphy Oil, to enter the ethanol industry," according to the WorldWatch Institute. Same thing's happening in Brazil, …

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Panda poop could revolutionize biofuels

One down side of biofuels like ethanol is that they rely on easily processed crops that are also staple foods. The more farm space is given over to raising corn, soybeans, and sugar for fuels, the less is available for raising those crops to feed humans. Luckily, scientists have just discovered microbes that could help turn waste plant matter like corn stalks and wood chips into fuel. All they needed was a little bit of panda poo. Pandas, as any first-grader knows, eat basically nothing but bamboo, and bamboo is tougher to digest than the concept of President Bachmann. They …

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Up close and personal with blight fungus and bugs

2011 is the International Year of Forests, and as part of their efforts to promote the sustainable forestry, the National Association of State Foresters, which represents state forestry agencies, and the National Network of Forest Practitioners, granted a fellowship to photographer Josh Birnbaum to document the state of the nation's forests. Birnbaum's first stop was in West Virginia, where he hung out with young foresters (pictured above), visited with the wood industry, traveled with researchers to a post-mining reclamation area, and documented blight fungus. He's now in South Dakota, to cover insect infestations, but he'll also be making stops in …

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Ethanol is now a matter of national security

Battle-corn: A tank prepares to refill on cheap biofuels. Opponents of using food for fuel, I've got good news and bad news. First the good: It appears that Congress is finally willing to kill two of the ethanol industry's main government supports -- the 45-cent-per-gallon ethanol tax credit worth about $6 billion per year, and the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. Now the bad: The Obama administration (which has been as aggressive an advocate for ethanol as any corn-state Senator) isn't going to let the ethanol industry down -- even if it means using federal dollars to ensure that 40 …

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Critical List: Exxon could lose a big Gulf oil lease; alligator fat makes good biofuel

Exxon could lose its lease on one of its biggest oil finds ever. Bill McKibben explains why Keystone XL protesters will wear Obama '08 buttons. Isn’t there some place to put a big wind farm that won't threaten endangered species of birds? (Spoiler: No. Or anyway, not South Texas.) Oil and gas companies are looking for a bounty in Greenland. Fifteen million pounds of leftover fat from alligator meat gets thrown away each year (really! People apparently eat that many alligators!), but it could be processed into biofuels.

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Critical List: The Navy and USDA invest in biofuels; Norway's big oil find

The Navy, USDA, and Energy Department are investing in biofuels that come from plants we don't eat. As Shell fought an oil leak in the North Sea, Norway's biggest oil company announced it had found a huge oil field there. Oh awesome, nothing can go wrong with this! Shell's also helping Iraq to double its capacity to produce natural gas. U.S. solar manufacturers say it's hard to compete against China's low-priced workers. Even the lead-up to drilling in the Arctic has frightened off whales. Who says green living's not self-centered? BMW's electric and hybrid line is called Project I. A …

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North Korea runs on wood-burning trucks

If you've ever wondered what we'll do after we've run out of cheap oil, other than eat each other, you have only to look to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea. Ever since the shipments of crude from the USSR and China dried up, they've had to improvise. So Dear Leader has once again demonstrated his Everlasting Beneficence and Ingenuity, pioneering the use of trucks that run on firewood and/or coal. Nowadays, if you see a truck, especially in a rural area, it’s probably running on “wood gas.” That’s carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, produced by burning …

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Trash trucks powered by trash gas reduce emissions by 80-90 percent

Waste Management Inc. owns 1,000 trash trucks that run on natural gas, plus a bunch of landfills that are constantly pumping out natural gas as a natural product of the decomposition of organic waste. Closing the loop on this cycle is a no-brainer, but it took Waste Management a decade to perfect the technology required. Now they’ve got trash trucks that run on gas from the trash they carry. At its Altamont, Calif. landfill, Waste Management turns methane into liquid natural gas at a rate of 13,000 gallons a day. The California Air Resources Board estimates that trucks that run …

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Critical List: $6 billion ethanol subsidy to end; Wyoming wolves screwed by Senate politics

The Senate is ending a $6 billion subsidy program for ethanol; anti-ethanol food and environmental groups say it's "not a perfect comprise" but that they're "encouraged" by the step. Carbon captured from coal plants can feed biofuel-producing algae. Which is awesome because nobody else wants to eat it. Put that tuna burger down! Overfishing could extinguish five out of eight tuna species. Can renewable energy keep up with Japan's demand for fuel-suckers like heated toilets? Former New York Gov. George Pataki said he might run for president because he doesn't like the White House's energy policies. Um, okay. The Interior …