Friday, March 03, 2006


Bacteria Turn it into Biodegradable Plastic

Bacteria are everywhere, silently going about their business of breaking down cellulose, fermenting foods or fixing nitrogen in the soil, among a host of other activities. Given their ubiquity and diversity of functions, biotechnologists have been searching for new uses for different strains of the microscopic organisms, such as consuming oil spills or even capturing images. Now biologists at the University College Dublin in Ireland have found that a strain of Pseudomonas putida can exist quite happily on a diet of pure styrene oil--the oil remnant of superheated Styrofoam--and, in the process, turn the environmental problem into a useful, biodegradable plastic.

Kevin O'Connor and his European colleagues turned the polystyrene into an oil through pyrolysis--a process that heats the petroleum-based plastic to 520 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen. This results in a chemical cocktail made up of more than 80 percent styrene oil plus low volumes of other toxicants. The researchers then fed this brew to P. putida CA-3, a special strain of a common soil microbe, fully expecting that the oil would have to be further purified in order to enable bacterial growth.

But the bacteria thrived on this new diet, turning 64 grams of undistilled styrene oil into nearly 3 grams of additional bacteria. In the process, the bacteria stored 1.6 grams of the energy of the styrene oil as a biodegradable plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHA. This plastic can stand up to heat but also breaks down more naturally in the environment than petroleum-based products. Thus, though the biology-powered process results in some toxic byproducts such as toluene and requires significant energy to drive the pyrolysis, it fuels hopes that Styrofoam--and the polystyrene molecule that makes it--can become more environmentally friendly.

This would be good news for the U.S., which produced three million tons of polystyrene in 2000, according to the EPA, and threw away 2.3 million tons of the stuff, consigning the waste to rest for long years in landfills. The PHA from this process could be turned to more productive uses; it is already being used to make everything from forks to vitamins. And the process might not just be useful for getting rid of disposable cups. "Due to the general applicability of pyrolysis for plastic conversion to an oil and the large number of microorganisms capable of PHA accumulation from a vast array of molecules, the principle of the process described here can be applied for the recycling of any petrochemical plastic waste," the scientists claim in the paper presenting their findings in the April 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology. Apparently, bacteria recycle, too.


WTO and biotech food: Who really won?

The long-awaited World Trade Organization decision on biotechnology applied to agricultural products, finally released earlier this month, elicited a great deal of buzz throughout the business, financial and biotech communities. Most analyses scored it a resounding victory for the United States and its co-complainants, and a stinging defeat for European protectionism. The reality is that it is a partial and largely hollow victory. For not having achieved a more complete and meaningful success, the United States, Canada, and Argentina, which jointly filed the complaint, have only their own unscientific, excessively risk-averse regulatory policies to blame.

Details of the 1,000-plus-page decision are still largely confidential, but a leaked copy of the conclusions and recommendations section makes clear that the WTO bluntly scolds the EU for denying it had imposed a moratorium on biotech food approvals from 1998 to 2004.

That finding was a foregone conclusion. Until the WTO case was filed, European politicians freely admitted that a moratorium existed. Although anti-biotechnology activists hailed it as a sign of European moral superiority, in 2001 then-EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstr”m acknowledged that the moratorium was "an illegal, illogical, and otherwise arbitrary line in the sand." When it came time for a WTO defense, the Europeans flip-flopped by attempting to deny that a moratorium had ever existed -- but still, they argued, if it had existed, it would have been perfectly legal. This strategy is reminiscent of the lawyer who claims on behalf of his client: "My client denies that he was at the scene of the crime, but even if you can prove that he was, he denies that he was responsible. And if you can prove that he committed the crime, he didn't mean to. And he promises never to do it again."

Although the EU's position was weak, it is reassuring, nevertheless, to see both its illegal practices and mendacity acknowledged.

The WTO decision also makes clear that existing national bans on certain biotech foods in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg are blatant violations of those countries' treaty obligations. When the United States filed its initial complaint in 2003, European politicians insisted the move was unnecessary. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy boasted, "We are confident that the WTO will confirm that the EU fully respects its obligations." But then, as now, the European Commission was famously impotent in persuading its rogue members to conform to EU policies. That those violative national bans all still exist argues the need for intervention by the international community. (Ironically, reflecting Europe's ongoing game of bureaucratic musical chairs, the current WTO Director General is none other than Pascal Lamy.)

The most important victory for the United States and its partners is the WTO's judgment that the EU failed to abide by its own regulations and has violated the provision against "undue delay" -- a significant term of art -- in its voting on applications for the marketing of twenty-five agbiotech products. The culprit here is the European Commission's highly politicized, sclerotic, two-stage approval process: Each application first must be cleared for marketing by various scientific panels, and then must be voted on by politicians.

Significantly, the WTO assumed the validity of "the conclusions of the relevant EC scientific committees regarding the safety evaluation of specific biotech products." Although all twenty-five product applications already had been approved by EU scientists, for transparently political reasons rather than concerns about consumer health or environmental protection, the EU Regulatory Committees and Council of Ministers repeatedly refused to sign off on the final approvals.

In this context, it is important to recall, as discussed further below, that these are superior products made with a state-of-the art technology. In 2003, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs David Byrne acknowledged that the official European Commission position was that currently marketed, gene-spliced crop varieties pose no greater food safety or environmental threat than the corresponding conventional food varieties. The safety and usefulness of the technology have been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, UK Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, and many others.

The good news, then, is the WTO panel's chastisement of the European Union for failing to follow its own regulatory rules. The bad news is the absence from the panel report of any condemnation of those rules themselves, in spite of the fact that they are blatantly unscientific and clear violations of the trade treaties enforced by the WTO....

It is unlikely that WTO's slap on the wrist will induce any major change in EU policy. At a "background" briefing on February 8, an "EU official" lashed out at the WTO decision: "It is nevertheless clear, beyond any doubt, that the EU will not have to modify its GMO ["genetically modified organisms"] legislation and authorization procedures and that the main thrust of the panel's conclusions concern the past . . . It is therefore not clear, and it never was, why the complaining parties brought this case forward in August 2003 when they were fully aware that the new EU regulatory system was to be applicable only a few months later." (In other words, we deny that we committed the crime, but if it can be proved that we did, we promise not to do it again.)

As long as these defiant pronouncements and unscientific policies remain, Europe will continue to foster a hostile legal environment for biotech products. Even if the EU does approve some of the twenty-five pending biotech products, because uncertainty is anathema to R&D -- especially in a sector in which most new products are low-value-added -- few companies are likely to risk the tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs to pursue new ones. Even worse, the less developed nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which once anticipated that agricultural and food biotechnology could provide them a brighter and more self-sufficient future, will continue to be shut out of the important European market by policymakers' callous obstructionism.

The limitations of the WTO decision are not the fault of the organization, but of national regulatory policies worldwide that defy sound science and common sense. The only winners from such wrong-headed public policy are European and other government regulators, whose bureaucracies will remain fat, happy and gratuitous; and anti-science activists, who rejoice at excessive, unscientific, stultifying regulation. The biggest losers are the rest of us, who systematically will be denied access to safer, more nutritious, and affordable products.

More here

Not seeing the Climate Forest for the Trees

A recent article appearing in the journal Nature discusses the finding of a new source of atmospheric methane from plant growth, in particular from forests. Methane is a greenhouse gas. Emissions of methane, like those of its more famous counterpart carbon dioxide, have been increasing during the last two centuries as the planet's population and economic activity have increased. Methane has also been linked to the recent increases in global temperatures, though the rate of increase for atmospheric methane has slowed in the last decade or so

Forests, especially those with younger trees, serve to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, as many studies have shown. Some countries, such as the United States, are asking for carbon credit in any international carbon control schemes for maintaining healthy forests. That said, one of the reactions to this article from those who follow the global climate change debate and blame humanity for recent climate change has already taken the following form: Countries such as the United States should not be allowed to claim any 'carbon credit' for re-forestation.

However, in the Nature study, the authors themselves do not claim that this newly-found natural source of atmospheric methane is leading to an increase in greenhouse gasses. Instead, they try to account for this new "source" within the parameters of what is presently known about the methane budget in the climate system. In other words, this new source overlaps with other known sources of atmospheric methane, such as fossil fuel use, animal and rice agriculture, and landfills

The Nature study also supports one of the main arguments that has been made for decades by scientists more skeptical of claims of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. These scientists have argued that the climate system is not simple to understand and that there is still a lot we need to learn. This lack of knowledge is an especially acute problem when we consider the interactions between one part of the climate system and another.

Some background information is in order here. Climate scientists look at the earth-atmosphere system as an integrated system that is generally thought of as being "closed"; that is not gaining or losing mass to outer space even if there is energy exchange between our planet and outer space.

The earth-atmosphere system is composed of five sub-systems, each of which exchange mass and energy with each other. These five sub-systems are the: a) atmosphere, b) oceans, c) ice - covered regions (cryosphere), d) land masses (lithosphere), and e) plant and animal life (biosphere). The complex interaction among these separate parts of the system has been problematic for climate modelers to represent adequately and is one of the reasons that these models are not considered entirely reliable for predicting future climate changes. It is the study of these kinds of physical processes where there are discoveries waiting to be made that will greatly advance our understanding of the environment, and will require the cooperative efforts of scientists with different specialties.

Additionally, the Nature study demonstrates that there is still more work to be done regarding the global budgets or cycles of both carbon dioxide and methane and how these cycles may have changed over the past century. So while there are those who will be tempted to use the Nature study to promote more of the doom and gloom global warming agenda, the study is actually a more powerful supporter of the skeptics' arguments.

Finally, this new publication should also put a large dent in the argument put forth by environmentalists (and some scientists themselves) that the science surrounding global warming is already settled and that the debate needs to shift to what needs to be done to address global warming.


'Oil Addiction' Talk Boosts Enviro Leftists

“America is addicted to oil.”

With these five words in his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush confounded steadfast allies on energy policy and emboldened his bitterest enemies. Political sages often counsel paying more attention to deeds than to words, but in this case, the President’s irresponsible rhetoric is likely to have far more damaging consequences than the minor policy changes he went on to recommend.

The addiction remark was the top headline in newspapers across the country and around the world. Environmental pressure groups quickly jumped on the President for admitting the obvious while still refusing to do anything about it. For example, Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote: “It was bizarre … this President seems clueless about addiction. You don’t follow up your first acknowledgement of your problem by saying that in 15 or 20 years you will cut back or seek treatment.”

Fill Your Chevy

The environmentalists are correct that the policies offered don’t amount to much. Bush proposed to reduce our oil imports from the Middle East by 75% by 2025 by increasing funding for research into new energy technologies by 22%. For automobiles, the President has decided that the fuel of the near future is going to be ethanol produced “not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass.”

Bush’s goal is meaningless. Only 20% of our current imports come from the Middle East, but even if it were zero, supply disruptions there (or anywhere) will raise the price of oil for everyone, because prices are set in a world market.

Second, the policies proposed are ridiculous. Over the past 35 years, the Department of Energy has spent billions and billions of taxpayer dollars on research into the not-so-new technologies referred to in the President’s speech without much to show for it. For example, ethanol (that is, ethyl alcohol—the stuff we drink) can be made from cellulosic materials such as wood chips, but decades of research have so far failed to make production commercially viable even with the huge federal subsidies ethanol producers receive.

Even if you agree with the goal and the policies, calling our use of oil an addiction is still a huge mistake. No one is addicted to oil or gasoline. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to sneak out of the house and go top off my Chevy’s tank at the nearest pusher’s roadside stand. I do buy lots of gasoline because it’s the best value product that gives me the mobility to do what I want to do.

Making us feel guilty about using energy is bad enough. Much worse is the implication that the producers of petroleum products are somehow doing something immoral by selling a product that we would be better off without. Thus President Bush has contributed significantly to the ongoing process of de-legitimizing (and even demonizing) the oil industry and is thereby undermining the ability of one of our most vital industries to continue to produce all the energy we need.

Five Little Words

This is not just a theoretical possibility. The day after his speech, environmental groups were sending out lists of all the policies that would be necessary to get us off our oil habit. These include much higher corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards for cars and trucks, much higher gas taxes, and windfall-profits taxes on oil company profits. Although the White House also said the next day that the administration still fully supports the pro-energy policies that Bush campaigned on in the 2000 and 2004 elections, his five little words had already worsened the prospects in Congress for legislation to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas production. And Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) immediately used the President’s speech to call for anti-trust investigations of excessive oil company profits.

Environmentalists have been pushing the oil addiction talk for years. Now and for years to come, whenever anyone argues for policies that would help increase oil supplies and keep gasoline affordable, they will be able to reply, “Even President Bush agrees that we need to kick the oil habit.”



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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