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.