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Thanks to the ethanol boom, big investors are plowing cash into corn country

Big investors seem to have forgotten how to exist without some sort of speculative bubble. In the last decade, they've whipped cash from tech stocks to bonds to emerging markets to real estate to junk mortgages. With the latter bubble now deflating rapidly, they've turned to ... Midwestern farmland? Yes, big cornfields. Here's a Chicago asset manager talking about who's buying up farmland, quoted in USA Today: It's everybody from the person concerned about the stock market to large government and corporate pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds. [!] Investors do like a sure bet. With the 2007 Energy Act …

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Umbra on green-company buyouts

Dear Umbra, So glad you were ransomed. (I happily did my bit.) I'm worried that the gentle-on-the-environment start-ups are taking the money and running. First our favorite toothpaste, Tom's of Maine, sold out to Colgate (I think) and now Burt's Bees has become a product line acquired by a bleach company. Where do we turn for sparkling teeth and rosy cheeks? Irene Eatonville, Wash. Dearest Irene, May I split a few awapuhi-softened hairs with you? Neither Tom's nor Burt's Bees can be characterized as a start-up. Both businesses are well established and worth millions. It's not like they barely got …

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Range of green credit cards offer carbon offsets for purchases

Major banks in the United States last year started offering green credit cards that use about 1 percent of the amount of customers' purchases to offset their emissions. So far, the cards seem to be taking off, benefiting credit card companies and, arguably, the planet. The cards come complete with hokey names like GreenPay MasterCard, GE Money Earth Rewards MasterCard, and Brighter Planet Visa. As customers spend, no doubt on eco-friendly purchases, they accumulate points toward offsets or carbon-mitigation projects. The going rate is roughly one ton of carbon offset for about $1,000 in credit card purchases. Green credit cards …

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Wind-power technicians are in high demand

As the wind industry experiences a huge boom, trained technicians are in high demand. Wind techs must have smarts in mechanics, hydraulics, computers, and meteorology -- and, of course, not be afraid of heights. The relatively new industry's oldest independent training programs aren't even five years old, and the industry is hustling to support training programs at community and technical colleges. "It's a career that has a good future in it and it'll help the environment because it doesn't pollute," says one Kansas wind-energy student. "I figured there'd be a lot of job opportunities when I graduated." That seems highly …

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Don’t let Wal-Mart’s greenish diversions distract you

  Photo: Lone Primate Wal-Mart has been trying its hardest to distract its environmental critics. In a carefully orchestrated act of diversion, the company shows off its skylights and light bulb sales. In doing so, Wal-Mart has managed to draw attention away from the other, deeper environmental problems lying at the heart of the company's business model. Wal-Mart's public relations efforts help hide the fact that despite all its talk, the company isn't any greener than it was in 2005 when it laid out a series of company-wide environmental initiatives. The fact remains that Wal-Mart's energy use is still rising. …

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More bad news for coal as big banks reconsider financing

I assume you've all heard the good news that three huge investment banks are planning to impose stricter standards on investments in coal-fired power plants. See WSJ's Jeffrey Ball here and here. I'd like to think this was the sheer power of green groups or the moral sensitivities of bank executives finally acting up, but the fact is, the writing is on the wall. Carbon legislation is inevitable. And make no mistake: any carbon legislation is going to make new dirty coal plants, which are already too expensive to attract much private capital, even more expensive. Here's Ball: We've talked …

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Three Wall Street banks announce funding restrictions for new coal power plants

Photo: iStockphoto Three major investment banks, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley, will announce new environmental standards today that are expected to make it more difficult for large coal-fired power plants in the United States to get funding. The standards anticipate some form of cap-and-trade program becoming law in the U.S. in coming years and seek to force utilities to plan for the inevitable; coal plants seeking funding would first have to prove they can be financially viable under a cap-and-trade system. The three banks said that they would consider funding energy efficiency measures and renewable-energy projects ahead of …

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New tool tracks financial ties between politicians and oil companies

Check out Follow the Oil Money, a tool from the Center for Responsive Politics Oil Change International. You can find out exactly how much oil money any politician is getting (by zip code). You can also see cool charts showing the oil connections among sets of politicians. Here, for instance, is a chart of the presidential candidates -- it shows that Giuliani was clearly the biggest oil man. Here is a chart of all House members. Looks like one Stevan Pearce of New Mexico is the big winner there. Over in the Senate, on the other hand, two goliaths stand …

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Q&A with Eric Janszen on whether an alt-energy bubble is in the making

Eric Janszen Eric Janszen, the founder and president of iTulip.com, recently argued in Harper's Magazine that the alternative energy segment is a prime candidate for a massive asset bubble, potentially dwarfing both the dot-com and housing bubbles. I wrote about Janszen's prediction last week. This week, Janszen joins us for a question-and-answer follow-up. Grist: You make a convincing argument that a financial bubble in the alternative energy industry is nearly inevitable, but the question I have is, do all bubbles have to end badly? Is it not possible for a bubble to harmlessly deflate over time? Janszen: As I mention …

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Oil industry barely hangs on, thanks to brave Republican defense of subsidies

You may recall that a couple of months ago, Republicans in the Senate threatened a filibuster to defend about $13 billion in oil company subsidies. In other news, Exxon Mobil just posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company in history -- $40.6 billion. It also set a record for the largest ever quarterly profit -- $11.7 billion. The second biggest U.S. oil company, Chevron, saw its profits rise 29% to $4.88 billion for the quarter. Clearly, this is an industry that desperately needs government help. Renewables are just going to have to wait until oil gets through this …