Milestone: commercial grade ethanol from wood and green waste

After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions…

The company, INEOS Bio…said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla….The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August…

The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn…

The plant, which uses methane gas from a nearby landfill, has faced a variety of problems. One was getting the methane, which is a greenhouse gas if released unburned, to the plant’s boilers. (The plan is to eventually run the plant on garbage that now goes to landfills.) Another problem was its reliance on the electrical grid.

The plant usually generates more power than it needs — selling the surplus to the local utility — and is supposed to be able to operate independently. But when thunderstorms knocked out the power grid, the plant unexpectedly shut down and it took weeks to get it running again, said Mark Niederschulte, the chief operating officer of INEOS Bio…“We’ve had some painful do/undo loops,” he said…

The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years…

INEOS has a goal of eight million gallons a year.

If they can get up to consistent production of commercial-grade, commercial quantities of ethanol, a number of goals become practical. Replacing fossil fuels is the most obvious. But, even the process of producing fuel to be burned is freeing up land to produce more cellulosic products which absorb carbon while growing.

We need to shine more light on America’s secret spy court

Many of America’s controversial surveillance activities are “legal” because they are approved by a secret court. Critics, including its own judges, have called for reform – but the problem won’t be fixed until the court adopts some basic legal traditions…

…There is a lot at stake because the court is charged with issuing warrants that give spy agencies permission to listen to Americans’ phone and email conversations if the agencies think there’s a chance that the American in question is communicating with a terror suspect outside the country.

The problem, however, is that the spy agencies are not asking for individual warrants, but large batches of them at once. And the FISA court has been rubber-stamping nearly all of these requests — without leaving any public record of when or why it is doing so…

…This week, a former FISA Court judge published an op-ed titled “A Better Secret Court” in which he argued that the government should appoint lawyers with security clearance to argue the side of the people the government wants to spy on (the people themselves can’t be made aware of the proceedings since that might compromise the investigations).

Such reforms could better protect civil liberties but they don’t address what’s most wrong the FISA court.

Even non-lawyers are familiar with two basic elements of how courts work in a democracy: the court publishes its decision and the loser has a way to appeal it. The FISA court, however, doesn’t really provide either of these basic planks of justice.

Only a handful of the FISA court’s many rulings over the past few decades have seen the light of day, since it is the court itself that decides whether to release them. And the appeals process is a bit of a mystery — even to lawyers familiar with the court…

It would not take much to fix the situation. Congress can write rules to require the court’s decisions to be declassified on a regular basis. It can also change the original law that created the court to confirm that it is not an island unto itself, but part of the rest of America’s judiciary and subject to oversight by the Supreme Court.

A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans have already formed an influential alliance to challenge the country’s surveillance practices. It would be easy for them to shift their attention to the FISA Court and support people like Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn) who are already trying to reform it.

Finally, in the short term, the FISA Court can take the situation into its own hands and start publishing its decisions — especially the ones that explain the powers of the government and the court’s own role in overseeing it. This transparency is essential to ensure that America, as it expands its security operations, doesn’t abandon the basic legal protections that are the base of every free society.

The closeness of the single occasion when Congress has voted on the question is encouraging. Cripes, it’s encouraging when Congress – particularly the Republican-controlled House – figures out how to do anything.

I wasn’t aware of the FISA court having the power to reform itself. I think the Obama White House can continue to count on childlike obedience from that quarter.

Meanwhile, we need to keep up the pressure.

Greece ready to end free police protection for rich


The rich can hire their children

Wealthy Greeks fearing attacks by anarchist groups will no longer be entitled to free police bodyguards in the latest cost-cutting plan from a government trying to meet budget targets set by international creditors.

The Public Order Ministry said on Tuesday that individuals with a net income of more than 100,000 euros a year will have to pay for their own police protection from potential terrorist and organised crime attacks.

Under the plan, they will have to pay 2,000 euros per month for each officer acting as a bodyguard and a daily fee of 50 euros for use of a patrol car.

…Private citizens currently receiving police protection include prominent businessmen and journalists who have been repeatedly threatened by anarchist groups, though few of the warnings have been specific.

But there has been a resurgence of attacks lately amid growing public hostility toward those, whether in the public or private sector, seen as corrupt and incompetent and blamed for Greece’s economic crisis.

It is the latest in a series of austerity measures that the Greek government has had to enact in recent years in return for bailout cash to avoid bankruptcy

The country is in its sixth year of recession and the country’s unemployment rate has spiked to over 25 percent…

Just about everything that could go wrong in Greece has done so. On one side, nutball anarchists start brawls when they’re not busy trying to blow up anything that smells like representative democracy – on the other, fascist gangs never quite disappeared from the map of history, trace their roots back to Hitlerian collaborators. Local coppers are ordered to leave both sides free to kill each other. And get in trouble themselves when they clout some petty bourgeois lout.

The modern flavors of Left and Right wobble along trying solve questions of consumption through unfunded public jobs or dancing the Greek imitation of the David Stockman polka – which requires the tears of unemployed to synchronize with IMF anal retentives singing hymns of praise to German Christian Democracy.

Mexican state of Colima legislates same-sex civil unions

Colima has become the latest Mexican state to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions after a majority of local authorities passed a change in the state’s constitution.

Legalisation on same-sex unions falls under state legislation, and a number of states have divergent rules.

Mexico City and the southern state of Quintana Roo allow gay marriages, while Coahuila allows same-sex civil unions.

Congress in Yucatan on the other hand banned same-sex marriage in 2009.

Seven out of ten authorities in Colima approved the constitutional change, which had been passed by the state’s congress earlier this month.

Only two Congressmen voted against the change, arguing the state should legalise gay marriages rather than restricting same-sex couples to civil unions…

Gay marriage was legalised in Uruguay earlier this year, and in Argentina in 2010.

In Brazil, the Supreme Court in May voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same-sex couples the same legal rights as married heterosexuals, effectively authorising gay marriage.

However, full legalisation of gay marriage in Brazil still depends on the passage of a law in Congress.

And then there’s the United States which still can’t find sufficient political courage in Congress to support constitutional legislation from decades ago – much less move forward towards civil rights for all citizens.

Developing nations urged to cut use of hazardous pesticides


Now-empty classroom where meal contaminated with pesticide served to children – Click to enlarge

Developing countries should speed up the withdrawal of highly hazardous pesticides from their markets following the death of 23 children from contaminated food in India, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization said on Tuesday.

The children in the Indian state of Bihar died earlier this month after eating a school meal of rice and potato curry contaminated with monocrotophos, a pesticide considered highly hazardous by the FAO and the World Health Organization…

Monocrotophos is banned in many countries but a panel of government experts in India was persuaded by manufacturers that the product was cheaper than alternatives and more effective in controlling pests that decimate crop output.

Although India’s government argues the benefits of strong pesticides outweigh the hazards if properly managed, the food poisoning tragedy underlined criticism such controls are virtually ignored on the ground.

The FAO said many countries lacked the resources to properly manage the storage, distribution, handling and disposal of pesticides and to reduce their risks…

Monocrotophos is currently prohibited in Australia, China, the European Union and the United States, and in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America…

India doesn’t have the market cornered in greed and corruption though some of their neighbors seem to be working more seriously at turning their own cultural history around. The point remains that the suggestions from United Nations FAO should be taken as a mandate.

If Indian politicians want to look like heroes they can name the law after the children their profiteering buddies killed.

Child labor, cigarettes, Bangladesh

Child labor, cigarettes, Bangladesh
Click to enlargeREUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Children fill up empty cigarettes manually with locally grown tobacco in a small bidi (cigarette) factory at Haragach in Rangpur district, Bangladesh…

According to a 2012 study by US-based NGO, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, over 45,000 people in Bangladesh are employed in manufacturing inexpensive cigarettes known as bidis and this number includes many women and children working in household based establishments where they make low wages and live in poverty.

A 2011 research paper about bidi workers in Bangladesh, published in the journal Tobacco Control, says that working conditions can involve poor ventilation and exposure to tobacco dust, which can cause a range of health problems including respiratory and skin diseases.

What redeeming value is there for jobs like these? Yes, I know all the explanations offered by sweatshop owners. But, study after study for over a century draws conclusions that reality dooms these children to despair.

Misreading Chinese rebalancing, of course

china-car-sales
Used Car Lot – Shenyang

The punditocracy has once again succumbed to the “China Crash” syndrome – a malady that seems to afflict economic and political commentators every few years. Never mind the recurring false alarms over the past couple of decades. This time is different, argues the chorus of China skeptics.

Yes, China’s economy has slowed. While the crisis-battered West could only dream of matching the 7.5% annual GDP growth rate that China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported for the second quarter of 2013, it certainly does represent an appreciable slowdown from the 10% growth trend recorded from 1980 to 2010.

But it is not just the slowdown that has the skeptics worked up. There are also concerns over excessive debt and related fears of a fragile banking system; worries about the ever-present property bubble collapsing; and, most important, the presumed lack of meaningful progress on economic rebalancing – the long-awaited shift from a lopsided export-and-investment-led growth model to one driven by internal private consumption…

For an unbalanced economy that has under-consumed and over-invested for the better part of three decades, this is unnerving. After all, China’s leadership has been talking about rebalancing for years – especially since the enactment of the pro-consumption 12th Five-Year Plan in March 2011. It was one thing when rebalancing failed to occur as the economy was growing rapidly; for the skeptics, it is another matter altogether when rebalancing is stymied in a “slow-growth” climate.

This is superficial thinking, at best. The rebalancing of any economy – a major structural transformation in the sources of output growth – can hardly be expected to occur overnight. It takes strategy, time, and determination to pull it off. China has an ample supply of all three…

Continue reading

Coronary bypass surgery in the US? $106,000 or more. In India, at Narayana Hrudayalaya Health City? How about $1,583

Devi Shetty is obsessed with making heart surgery affordable for millions of Indians. On his office desk are photographs of two of his heroes: Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi.

Shetty is not a public health official motivated by charity. He’s a heart surgeon turned businessman who has started a chain of 21 medical centers around India. By trimming costs with such measures as buying cheaper scrubs and spurning air-conditioning, he has cut the price of artery-clearing coronary bypass surgery to $1,583, half of what it was 20 years ago, and wants to get the price down to $800 within a decade. The same procedure costs $106,385 at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“It shows that costs can be substantially contained,” said Srinath Reddy, president of the Geneva-based World Heart Federation, of Shetty’s approach. “It’s possible to deliver very high quality cardiac care at a relatively low cost.”

Medical experts like Reddy are watching closely, eager to see if Shetty’s driven cost-cutting can point the way for hospitals to boost revenue on a wider scale by making life-saving heart operations more accessible to potentially millions of people in India and other developing countries.

“The current price of everything that you see in health care is predominantly opportunistic pricing and the outcome of inefficiency,” Shetty, 60, said in an interview in his office in Bangalore, where he started his chain of hospitals, with the opening of his flagship center, Narayana Hrudayalaya Health City, in 2001.

Cutting costs is especially vital in India, where more than two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day and 86 percent of health care is paid out of pocket by individuals. A recent study by the Public Health Foundation of India and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that in India non-communicable ailments such as heart disease are now more common among the poor than the rich…

“There has been fast urbanization in India that’s brought with it a change in dietary patterns and lifestyle,” said Usha Shrivastava, head of public health at the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation. “It’s leading to this huge jump in cardiovascular disease…”

The biggest impediment for heart surgery in India is accessibility. Shetty aims to bridge that by building hospitals outside India’s main cities. He said he plans to add 30,000 beds over the next decade to the 6,000 the hospital chain has currently, and has identified 100 towns with populations of 500,000 to 1 million that have no heart hospital.

A 300-bed, pre-fabricated, single-story hospital in the city of Mysore cost $6 million and took six months for construction company Larsen & Toubro Ltd. to build, Shetty said. Only the hospital’s operating theaters and intensive-care units are air-conditioned, to reduce energy costs…

“Global health-care costs are rising rapidly and as countries move toward universal health coverage, they will have to face the challenge of providing health care at a fairly affordable cost,” said the World Heart Federation’s Reddy, a New Delhi-based cardiologist who is also president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

Anyone in the American Medical Association listening? I imagine the few progressive thinkers in Congress are – and no one else in that useless body of corporate pimps.

Actually, given where I live, I hope there are more Mexican doctors paying attention. There are beaucoup grayheads from my neck of the prairie who already make their way over the border for much of their medical care.

Spill from leaking pipeline reaches popular Thailand tourist beach

Koh Samet
What the beach looks like – minus oil

The oil spill from a leaked pipeline in Thailand has reached one of the country’s popular tourism islands, officials have said.

The authorities have warned tourists to avoid oil-slicked water on Koh Samet.

A pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical leaked on Saturday spilling an estimated 50,000 litres of oil.

Hundreds of people, including navy personnel, environment officials and villagers were battling to clean the oil from Samet’s beaches.

“The top priorities right now are to get rid of the oil on the sand and the seawaters, and to make sure the spill doesn’t spread to other shores,” said local deputy provincial governor Supeepat Chongpanish.

This is a very beautiful, white, sandy beach, so we want to make the spill go away as soon as possible.”

Some hotel guests were cutting their holiday short because of the oil spill.

“…It’s chaotic right now. Many people and officials are on the beach dealing with it,” a hotel worker told AFP news agency.

After the spill

Not so pretty for a spell. I don’t know anyone this side of Royal Dutch Shell who thinks the sight of oil on the water makes any place more attractive to tourists. Or to the folks who live there.