The battle between science and the profit margin is heating up. In case you missed it, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Chicago a few Saturdays ago (Al Gore was one of the speakers). This is the same group that publishes the journal Science. Following is an excerpt from a blog post by Erik Stokstad titled Fill ‘Er Up With Rainforest [$ub. req’d.]:

Update [2009-2-23 14:46:46 by biodiversivist]: Erik Stokstad just informed me that you don’t need a subscription to read the blog.

The ethanol produced on millions of new hectares of corn in the United States in the last 2 years — touted as the green future of oil and gas — will increase deforestation in the Amazon and result in a large increase in carbon emissions to the atmosphere. That’s the conclusion from research presented at a symposium this afternoon on biofuels and tropical deforestation. In fact, most new farmland in the tropics is converted from forests that had been rich storehouses of carbon, another scientist reported.

Here’s the nexus with the Amazon: When farmers in the U.S. planted more corn and less soy in 2007, Brazilian farmers started planting more soy, an increase of 500,000 hectares. Often, they cut down and burned rainforest to plant more fields.

If the U.S. reaches its target for corn-based ethanol, Coe estimated that Brazilian farmers would plant up to 1 million more hectares of soy. Depending on whether pasture or forests are converted to fields, the amount of carbon emissions released as a result would be 130 to 650 times greater than the emissions saved by burning ethanol rather than fossil fuels …

How much of new farmland comes from forests? Holly Gibbs, a postdoc at Stanford University, quantified this for the first time across the tropics by analyzing a random sample of 600 satellite images taken in 1980, 1990, and 2000. The various types of land cover — cropland, pasture, forests, and so forth — in each image had been identified by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. All told, 80 percent of new fields had been converted from forests. (Most of the rest is shrubland.)

It’s not known how much of new farmland is being used for biofuels, but Gibbs estimates it could be anywhere from a third to two-thirds. Unless biofuels are planted in pastures or degraded lands, she said, “we’re going to be burning rainforest in our gas tanks.”

On the sugarcane front …

Here’s a heart-wrenching story about a cane worker who has to hold his hernia in with one hand while cutting cane with the other, all the while trying to hide his affliction from the gang boss.

Here’s another story that pretty much says the same thing but adds:

The Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association predicts that 80 percent of the sector’s 500,000 jobs will be gone in the next three years because of mechanization.

On the corn ethanol front…

According to this piece in the New York Times, corn ethanol is still a stupid idea:

…plants are shutting down virtually every week …

The ethanol industry is on its back despite the billions of dollars they have gotten in taxpayer assistance, and a guaranteed market.

You may recall that biofuel proponents were blaming the high price of oil for raising the cost of their feedstock (food) to the point that consumers were not willing to buy their product (B-99 in Seattle was over $6.00 a gallon). Now they are blaming the low cost of oil for making their product non-competitive (it still costs more than oil). This paradox strongly suggests that biofuels are never going to be an inexpensive option regardless of the price of oil and subsidizing it in an attempt to make it competitive will never have an end. It will always rise in price right along with oil.

On the palm oil front …

From Mongabay:

Indonesia’s Minister for the Environment has approved a decree that will allow the conversion of carbon-rich peatlands for oil palm plantations…

…The decree brings to the end a 15-month moratorium on conversion of peatlands. The ban was initiated by President Yudhoyono ahead of the Bali climate conference in December 2007.

“This decree ignores the major impacts that such plantations will have in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity and increased flooding. It highly conflicts with the attempts by the EU, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palmoil (RSPO), the UN Climate Conference and the Convention on Biological Diversity to save these carbon rich and biodiversity rich areas,” said Wetlands International in a statement. “The decree makes it uncertain for Indonesia to receive support from REDD, a future forest — climate scheme to reward countries that reduce their emissions from deforestation as these emissions are now likely to increase.”

“Allowing the destruction of more peatlands is a disaster for the fight against climate change, and will only confirm Indonesia’s status as the world’s third biggest polluter,” Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaigner Bustar Maitar told The Jakarta Post.

“With the general elections coming up, the Agriculture Ministry’s plan is fishy, because it seems like an attempt to satisfy the country’s powerful paper and palm oil industries at the expense of the environment.”

Huh, who could have predicted? Palm oil, Indonesia’s corn ethanol.

This sudden drop in the price of palm oil has got me to wondering. The high price of palm oil helped drive Imperium Renewables (the largest biodiesel refiner on the West Coast) to the edge of bankruptcy. Their original business model was to use palm oil because they assumed it would be the cheapest stock, which turned out to be wrong. They were forced to buy Canadian canola at market rates, which went ballistic. But now the price of palm oil has tanked and the government of Indonesia even has plans to mandate blending more of it into their diesel supply to keep the palm oil business humming.

Imperium is keeping a low profile. Google searches turn up next to nothing. I found this blurb about the EU sticking them with a duty for undercutting EU producers with imports that capitalized on our dollar per gallon subsidy — proof positive that Imperium has been exporting biodiesel and that all of this talk about oil independence from biofuel proponents is a crock.

I found another short article suggesting that they still plan to sell biodiesel to a Hawaiian utility that wants to use a green fuel (that is anything but green) and plans to stick its customers for the extra cost of pretending to go green.

Finally there was this press release about receiving BQ-9000 Status (whatever that means) and an excellent OSHA Safety Rating (not too hard to do if you are not producing anything).

A visit to its website found it to be out of date with several broken links. If they are still producing biofuels I can’t determine what they are using for stock and who all they are selling it to. Will Imperium rise from the ashes and
if so will it be done using palm oil?

Propel Biofuels (one of Imperium’s retail distributors in Seattle) moved its headquarters to Sacramento, apparently to capitalize on the generous government handouts still available for these destructive fuels:

California’s stricter air emission standards just got a nod from a friend in the White House …

While Elam wouldn’t disclose how much each station cost to build, he said Propel used some grant money from the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

It’ll be interesting to see how many station customers are average biofuel-using Californians vs. employees of the state, which has agreed to purchase fuel from Propel.