Biomass land grab could leave poor hungry

by Lauren Craig, EarthTechling

The food-versus-fuel debate has typically been used in reference to farmers in industrialized countries growing food crops, such as corn, to sell to biofuels producers.

However, there is another side to the debate. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a non-profit research institute based in London, is raising concerns that rising global demand for biomass fuels could lead to a race for land acquisition in the developing world, with serious implications for communities that grow their own food.

Biomass land grab could leave poor hungry
As countries in the global north increase their use of biomass to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and meet ambitious renewable energy targets, the demand for wood and other biomass crops could exceed supply by up to 600% in some countries.

Some countries, including Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom already import increasing volumes of wood pellets.

According to the IIED, this trend, combined with the tropics’ high growth rates, cheap land and low costs of labor and the rising price of fossil fuels, could lead more countries to look toward Africa, South America and South Asia as sources of biomass fuels.

Corn MaizeThere is evidence that this is already happening. For example, in 2010, a US company secured a 49-year lease on 5,000 hectares of land in Ghana for a plantation to produce feedstock for biomass power plants.

The same company also operates in Guyana, and intends to establish energy crop plantations in Madagascar, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Governments hope that this increased private investment will lead to job creation and further action toward mitigating climate change. But, in many parts of the developing world, poor people have weak or non-existent land rights.

If governments choose to lease large areas of land for fuel wood plantations, the IIED warns that many rural communities could lose access to land which they have farmed for generations, and on which their survival depends. The entire policy brief can be found here.

Lauren Craig, EarthTechling

Biomass land grab could leave poor hungry


How Will States Tax Internet Downloads? Congress May Decide

By Matthew Lasar

Here’s an interesting conundrum, posed by Representative Dennis Ross (R-Florida), at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing held on Monday:

“Imagine you are sitting in Dulles airport in Virginia, waiting for a flight back to Florida,” Ross began in his opening remarks. “You download a music file from Apple, which is headquartered in California. The music is sent to you via a server in Oklahoma.”

Which of these states should be allowed to tax the sale?

Without a “clear national rule,” he warned at the hearing, “all four states may attempt to tax the transaction.”

And so Congress is considering one such national standard: HR 1860, the Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act of 2011. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) submitted the bill to the Judiciary committee two weeks ago. A similar law sponsored by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) awaits consideration in the Senate.

The crux of the legislation centers around this sentence: “No State or local jurisdiction shall impose multiple or discriminatory taxes on or with respect to the sale or use of digital goods or digital services.”

The bill defines a “discriminatory tax” as a tax imposed by a State or local jurisdiction at a higher rate than “is generally imposed on or with respect to the sale or use of tangible personal property or of similar services that are not provided electronically.”

A “multiple tax” is defined as one in which that State or locality “gives no credit with respect to a tax that was previously paid on or with respect to the sale or use of such digital good or digital service to another State or local jurisdiction.”

Then come more specific limits on taxation. Any tax on the sale of digital goods and services can only be imposed on the state and its localities “whose territorial limits encompass the customer’s tax address.” This is understood as the address that the customer offered and which the seller received in good faith.

This legislation is strongly supported by the Download Fairness Coalition, which, not coincidentally, describes itself as “a partnership of businesses, associations, and consumers who have joined together to prevent multiple and discriminatory taxation of digital goods.”

The Coalition includes Apple, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Verizon and, most notably, Amazon. The last mentioned company has been famously at odds with various states over taxes for years.

Story Continues -> How Will States Tax Internet Downloads? Congress May Decide

Senate votes down bill to end oil company subsidies, see how they voted and who gets oil money

by Autoblog Staff

As expected, a Democratic bill that would have put an end to the multi-billion-dollar annual tax subsidies for oil companies Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil failed to overcome a Republican filibuster on Tuesday evening. The heavily partisan 52-in-favor, 48-against vote fell eight shy of the 60 required to bring the bill to the floor.

If passed, the bill would have eliminated $12 billion in subsidies for production of oil within the U.S. and cut $6 billion in credits for taxes that oil companies pay to foreign governments. Finally, the bill would have put an end to oil companies writing off some drilling and development costs.

According to the Huffington Post, Republicans say that the bill unfairly singles out oil companies and would hinder their ability to hire American workers, thus leading to reduced oil production and increased dependence on foreign oil. Democrats argue that subsidies are unnecessary given that oil companies typically report profits in the multi-billion dollar range.

Three Democrats – Mary Landrieu (D-LA, pictured), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Ben Nelson (D-NE) – voted with Republicans to maintain the subsidies, while Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) sided with the Democrats.

As this chart – based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics– shows, the 48 senators who voted with the oil industry received over $21 million in oil-related contributions, while the 52 senators who voted to eliminate subsidies received a mere $5.4 million. Looks like money talks.

[Source: Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post | Images: Kris Connor/Getty]

Senate votes down bill to end oil company subsidies, see how they voted and who gets oil money

Shell to builds world’s biggest floating object

by Emma Woollacott

Shell’s announced that it’s to go ahead with plans to build the world’s largest floating object ever, a platform designed to exploit offshore natural gas fields.

The Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) project, moored some 200 kilometres offshore from Australia, will produce gas from offshore fields and liquefy it onboard by cooling it to minus 162 degrees Celcius.

Construction will now begin at a shipyard in South Korea.

From bow to stern, the FLNG facility will be 488 metres long (1600 feet or almost 1/3 of a mile long_. When fully equipped, and with its storage tanks full, it will weigh around 600,000 tonnes – around six times as much as the largest aircraft carrier. Some 260,000 tonnes of steel will be used.

“Our innovative FLNG technology will allow us to develop offshore gas fields that otherwise would be too costly to develop,” says Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s Executive Director, Upstream International.

“FLNG technology is an exciting innovation, complementary to onshore LNG, which can help accelerate the development of gas resources.”

In an industry first, liquid natural gas will be transported by ship straight from the plant to the customer, rather than being liquefied at a land-based plant. The company says the facility has been designed to withstand the severest cyclones – those of Category 5.

The facility is expected to go into production in around 2017 at the Prelude gas field. It expects to harvest some 110,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. The FLNG facility will stay permanently moored at the Prelude gas field for 25 years, after which it may be moved elsewhere.

Shell builds world’s biggest floating object

Improving Phones through Surveillance

Apps that track how people use their phones could help make the devices more efficient.

By Tom Simonite

A cell-phone application that logs everything the phone”s user does–from sending e-mail to playing games–may not sound so desirable. But researchers are deploying the software to see if they can determine the best ways to improve the battery life of phones and uncover network dead spots.

Working with colleagues at Microsoft Research, Hossein Falaki, a PhD candidate at UCLA”s Center for Embedded Network Sensing, has developed software that records data use, phone use, and battery-charge levels. The software is designed to run on devices that use Windows Mobile or the Android operating system. The Android version can also track the data sent and received by individual applications.

“One major problem we all experience with smart phones is that the batteries don”t last long enough,” says Falaki, who will present a paper next month at the Internet Measurement Conference in Melbourne, Australia, on more than 2,000 days of data collected from eight Windows Mobile and 35 Android users. “By studying how people use [the phones], we can find ways to match devices and networks to people.”

For example, the tracking application uncovered data suggesting that a tweak to the hardware of two phones made by the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC– could save approximately 40 percent of the power consumed by their radios. These handsets automatically switch off the radio after being idle for 17 seconds, a tactic used by all handsets and often with a similar timeout value. But that is a poor match with the very “bursty” way that smart-phone users access data, says Falaki. “People take the phone out of their pocket, interact with it for a few minutes, and then don”t use it for a relatively long time after,” he says.

Logs of data use showed that after a burst of activity, users rarely needed more data in the subsequent 17 seconds, so the radio was often left on needlessly. In fact, some 95 percent of data packets were sent or received within 4.5 seconds of the last one. Resetting the device so that the radio powered down after 4.5 seconds would consume 40 percent less power without affecting performance, says Falaki.

“These ”tail times” are larger than they need to be,” says Arun Venkataramani, an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studies power use in mobile devices. “From an application and user perspective, there”s significant room for improvement.” The Microsoft-UCLA data agrees with results from his own experiments looking at the energy costs of cell-phone timeout periods, he says.

Article Continues ->

Reform of Toxic Chemicals Law Collapses as Industry Flexes Its Muscles

By Sheila Kaplan

This article by investigative journalist Sheila Kaplan is the first in a series supported by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University”s School of Communication. Politics Daily will publish the remaining installments in the weeks to come.

Fire retardants in baby blankets, nano-particles in cosmetics, plastics in water bottles and anti-bacterial agents in soaps.

Experts call these and other chemicals emerging contaminants — compounds that were once thought to be safe, but which scientists now believe may pose a danger to human health.

How those chemicals get into your house — and your bloodstream — is no surprise: Loopholes in the federal law that regulates toxic chemicals have allowed manufacturers to sell them without first proving they are safe.
In recent years, however, dozens of studies — many funded by the federal government — have shown that chemicals that are ubiquitous in the environment and in consumer goods can cause cancer, wreak havoc on hormones, damage the developing brain, depress the immune system and alter gene expression-among other problems. Earlier this year, the President”s Cancer Panel reported, “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” And Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funded many of the top studies, told Congress, “Research has revealed the heightened vulnerability of fetal, infant and child development processes to disruption from relatively low doses of certain chemicals.” Birnbaum, like EPA chief Lisa Jackson, urged Congress to revamp the federal law that regulates toxic chemicals, giving the agency greater authority to protect the public.
Last fall, a group of congressional Democrats vowed to overhaul the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to make it easier for EPA to take dangerous chemicals off the market and ensure that the substitutes are safe. But one year, six congressional hearings and 10 “stakeholder sessions” later, the bills are dead, a testament to the combined clout of $674 billion chemical industry, the companies that process their compounds into air fresheners, detergents, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, medical devices and other consumer goods, and the stores that sell them. Their campaign to block reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act won out over EPA”s support, an unprecedented campaign by public health advocates fueled by the industry”s own admissions that the current law does not fully protect public health.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who introduced reform bills, say they”ll reintroduce them next year. But industry lobbyists will also be back, making it likely that the stalemate will continue — even if the Republicans don”t gain any additional seats in Congress.

China Shuts Down 1,611 Illegal Coal Mines

BEIJING — China has shut down more than 1,600 small, illegal coal mines this year as part of an effort to improve safety standards in a mining industry that is the most dangerous in the world.

The state-backed People”s Daily newspaper reported Thursday that 1,611 small mines across China with outdated facilities were closed this year, citing the National Energy Bureau.

More than 2,600 people died in mining accidents in China last year, though deaths have decreased in recent years as the government increased safety inspections and shut down illegal mines.

In October, the State Administration of Work Safety said mine managers and bosses who do not accompany workers down into mine shafts would be severely punished.