The oil industry has a less-than-stellar environmental record in general, but it becomes even worse in tropical
rainforest regions, which often contain rich deposits of petroleum. The most notorious examples of rainforest havoc
caused by oil firms are Shell Oil in Nigeria and Texaco in Ecuador. Both companies have degraded the local environment
and affected local and indigenous people by their activities. The Texaco operation in Ecuador was responsible for
spilling some 17 million gallons of oil into the biologically rich tributaries of the upper Amazon, while Shell
Oil sometimes lent cooperation to the former oppressive military dictatorship in Nigeria in the suppression and
harassment of local people.
The proper action to take to make the oil industry more sustainable is a difficult one; engineers worldwide are
paid millions of dollars to do so. The simplest, most reliable solution would be to prohibit oil extraction in
the tropical rainforest. However, this is unreasonable considering the number of tropical countries that rely on
their oil reserves for developing their economies and the importance of oil in today's fossil fuel-driven economy.
The basic steps should be to reduce pollution produced by extraction methods and to minimize the occurrence of
spills. Perhaps this can be accomplished by developing more durable pipelines for oil transport and adopting oil
reinjection techniques used in the United States. The limitation of oil roads and settlements is also important
in reducing deforestation. Shell Oil in Gabon has taken steps to prevent its operations in Gamba from drawing masses
into shantytown unemployment by restricting access—through costly airline flights—to the oil fields.
Alternatively, new energy sources, like the oil extracted from palms, can be developed. Palm oil is considered
by many to be a possible alternative to petroleum, but much more ecologically sound because palm oil plantations
can be planted on formerly forested lands that now lay fallow. Some have suggested that 2 billion hectares (5 billion
acres) of palm with renewable yield of 25 barrels of palm oil per hectare (10 barrels per acre) could satisfy the
world's fuel needs. Currently, the greatest concern over palm biodiesel is the clearing of natural forest for palm-oil plantations. In 2005, Indonesia announced plans for a a href=http://news.mongabay.com/2005/0812-wwf.html>massive plantation in the "heart" of Borneo.
Henry Ford's first car was designed to run on ethanol.
Ethanol-based fuels also offer great potential for the future. An 85 percent
corn ethanol and 10 percent unleaded gasoline blend outperforms conventional gasoline and reduces gas emissions by 35-46 percent,
while reducing energy use by 50-60 Percent. A number of U.S. senators have pushed for wider distribution of such fuels, since
they could be produced domestically, reducing the hassle and danger of Middle East politics and supporting national
agriculture. Additionally, stalks and waste fibers from crops like corn and sugar could be collected for conversion
into ethanol for mixing with gasoline rather than being burned, as is the usual practice.
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Like the U.S. push for ethanol, the government of Brazil has the Proalcool project, a national alcohol-power project that emerged in the 1970s in response to skyrocketing oil prices. The fuel—hydrated alcohol derived from sugar cane—powers more than two million
of Brazil's cars today. At the peak production in 1987-1988, nearly 80 percent of the cars produced in Brazil were alcohol-powered.
The fuel produces no benzene or sulfur emissions, and very little carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Some 35 percent of its
emissions are oxygen. Today ethanol accounts for as much as 20 percent of Brazil's transport fuel market, and at a production cost of about $1 a gallon offers an economical alternative to drivers throughout the country. The Wall Street Journal estimates that seven out of every 10 new cars sold in Brazil are flex-fuel—capable of running on either tradtional gasoline or ethanol.
Good old-fashioned oil conservation is effective in reducing demand for oil products. After the first OPEC embargo
in 1973, the United States realized the importance of oil efficiency and initiated policies to do away with wasteful
practices. By 1985, the U.S. was 25 percent more energy efficient and 32 percent more oil efficient than in 1973.
Of course the
U.S. was upstaged by the Japanese who in the same period improved their energy efficiency by 31 percent and their oil
efficiency by 51 percent. Today the importance of oil to the economy continues to diminish. Despite the 51 percent growth in the American economy between 1990 and 2004, carbon emissions only increased 19% suggesting that those who insist that economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions move in tandem are wrong.
The Petroleum Revolution
DEVELOP NEW TECHNOLOGY
The developed world can seek alternative methods to oil exploration, by developing new technologies
that rely less on processes that are ecologically damaging. For example, compressed natural gas is a cleaner-burning
fuel than gasoline, is already used in some cars, and is available in vast quantities.
Even more environmentally sound than natural gas are hydrogen fuel-cell-based technologies. Already,
cars powered by hybrid fuel cells, though not independent of fossil fuels, are entering the market, and the big
automakers in Detroit and Japan are pumping hundreds of millions into improving fuel-cell technology. Within a
generation, fuel cells may be lighting our homes and heating our swimming pools.
Making wind power less deadly for birds December 15, 2005
High oil prices and concern over climate change are driving interest in renewable energy technologies. All types of potential power sources not limited to the sun—ocean tides and waves, raw sewage, and even insects—are the focus of media reports, while governments and industry scramble to announce their grand plans for adopting green energy.
Energy efficiency helped California grow an extra $31 billion finds study 4-Dec-05
Countering Bush administration claims to the contrary, environmental officials for the state of California and the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo have found significant evidence that greenhouse gas pollution can be substantially reduced at a profit rather than a cost. The study, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, found that energy efficiency has helped the California economy grow an extra 3 percent—a $31 billion gain—compared to business as usual. Further, the researchers say that each Californian typically saved about $1,000 per year between 1975 and 1995 just through efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.
Australian industry embraces green energy while government fights emissions cuts 1-Dec-05
Despite Australia's resistance to limiting carbon dioxide emissions through the Kyoto Protocol, Australian industry and entrepreneurs are working on novel ways to reduce dependence on traditional fossil fuels.
Photovoltaic solar energy conversion can be cost-competitive by 2030 November 16, 2005
Professor Andrew Blakers from the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University reported to the Greenhouse 2000 Conference in Melbourne that photovoltaic (PV) solar energy conversion can be cost-competitive with any low-emission electricity generation technology by 2030.
Britain has best wind-power potential in Europe November 14, 2005
A survey of wind power in Britain says the island nation has the best wind in Europe because it blows year round and peaks when there is the greatest demand for electricity. Further, the study found that there has never been a time over the past 35 years when the entire country has experienced a period of no wind.
Organic solar cells will help spur viability of alternative energy October 10, 2005
Imagine being able to "paint" your roof with enough alternative energy to heat and cool your home. What if soldiers in the field could carry an energy source in a roll of plastic wrap in their backpacks?
Poor need renewable energy sources, says Annan August 23, 2005
In a new report, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says energy poverty is seriously impeding socio-economic development in the world's poorest countries. Noting that in the developing countries some 1.6 billion people still lack access to electricity and about 2.4 billion continue to rely on traditional biomass like fuelwood for cooking and heating, Annan calls for intensified efforts to promote renewable energy sources for the poor.
Cow manure + sunlight + metal ore = hydrogen fuel? August 11, 2005
Researchers led by Michael Epstein at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel think they may have an energy-efficient way of collecting solar energy to generate hydrogen, a key input for green energy technologies like fuel cells. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by processes that require the combustion of fossil fuels and produce polluting greenhouse gases. Further, finding safe and cost-effective means for the storage and transportation of hydrogen gas has proved elusive to date. Epstein's process has the potential to address a number of these issues by "creating an easily storable intermediate energy source from metal ore, such as zinc oxide," according to a release from the Weizmann Institute of Science."
Renewable energy in China, a strategic future?
August 2, 2005
With a host of environmental and domestic social concerns—and potential future international conflict—China could be well suited to pursue renewable energy sources. While China has been actively investing in exploration and development operations in Africa, South America, and parts of Asia over the past five years, it has also significantly expanded its interests in renewable energy sources including wind, solar, biofuels, tidal, and small hydroelectric dams.
How might I invest in green-energy projects? July 20, 2005
On June 17, Associate Press reported that Zilhka Renewable Energy hopes to complete a $100 million wind farm in eastern Oregon by December 2006. The article said the company-owned wind farms function in eleven states. For many investors, green or otherwise, this would seem like a great company in which to own stock. Whether or not the numbers would bear that out, a savvy investor would first want to know, "How might I buy a piece of Zilhka or invest in their projects?"
To encourage investment in research and development of "greener" technologies, governments can help by eliminating subsidies for the oil and gas industry and imposing higher taxes on heavy polluters. While governments will play a role in cleaner-energy development, it is likely that the private sector will provide most of the funding and innovation for new energy projects. Venture capital firms are busy evaluating and funding new technologies, while corporations are getting on board as well. In early 2006, General Electric (GE), one of the world's largest corporations, announced a new push for environmental technologies, one that would both promote the development of new products and services as well as reducing the company's impact on the environment. Under the initiative, every GE business unit will have to cut its output of carbon dioxide to meet strict internal targets, while research spending on clean products will be more than doubled by 2010. In the wake of GE's shift, we are likely to see other companies adopting similar strategies for profiting in a greener business environment.
At times, hydroelectric projects have proven to have a significantly negative impact on the local environment, so alternative ways of
generating electricity should be considered. For example, developments in the field of solar energy will soon make make the direct harvesting of solar energy an economic practice. Several projects in California ensure that the state will soon become one of the world's largest producers of solar electricity, while an Australian firm is taking a different approach to capturing energy from the sun by using "solar chimney" concept. Someday it might be possible for countries with large expanses of desert
like those in the Sahara to produce energy not only for their own people, but also for export, bringing in much-needed revenue. The revenue gained from the export of electricity could finance the development of other industries, which with the electric energy source would be considerably cleaner and probably more reliable than energy supplied by fossil fuels.
Wind power also has a lot of potential as a power source—one that again could benefit some of the world's poorest and most isolated countries. The solar-based or wind-based economy could vastly improve the standards of living, while possibly decreasing the need to exploit forests for fuelwood, charcoal, oil, and hydroelectric potential. Economic returns from such a knowledge-intensive industry would promote much sounder, more meaningful growth than wealth earned from extractive industry. And education in universities could be geared toward improving solar panels, developing solar-based industries, and improving the durability and efficiency of wind-power rechnology.
Beyond wind and the sun, there are also other attractive sources of energy including geothermal heat, electricity generated by tidal change and waves, artificial tornadoes, biomass, and freshwater/saltwater differentials.
Returning Carbon Dioxide
to the Earth?
Admittedly, there are many challenges facing sustainable use of tropical
rainforests. In arriving at a solution many issues must be addressed, including the resolution of conflicting
claims to land considered to be in the public domain; barriers to markets; the assurance of sustainable development
without over-exploitation in the face of growing demand for forest products; determination of the best way to use forests; and the
consideration of many other factors.
Almost none of these economic possibilities can become realities if the rainforests are completely stripped. Useful
products cannot be harvested from species that no longer exist, just as eco-tourists will not visit the vast stretches
of wasteland that were once lush forest. Thus some of the primary rainforests must be salvaged for sustainable
development to be at all successful.
- What are some alternative sources of energy beyond oil, gas, and coal?
- Why can palm biodiesel be damaging to the rainforest?
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