The recent revelations of a International Energy Administration whistleblower that the IEA may have distorted key oil projections under intense U.S. pressure is, if true (and whistleblowers rarely come forward to advance their careers), a slow-burning thermonuclear explosion on future global oil production. The Bush administration’s actions in pressuring the IEA to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves have the potential to throw governments’ long-term planning into chaos.
Whatever the reality, rising long term global demands seem certain to outstrip production in the next decade, especially given the high and rising costs of developing new super-fields such as Kazakhstan’s offshore Kashagan and Brazil’s southern Atlantic Jupiter and Carioca fields, which will require billions in investments before their first barrels of oil are produced.
In such a scenario, additives and substitutes such as biofuels will play an ever-increasing role by stretching beleaguered production quotas. As market forces and rising prices drive this technology to the forefront, one of the richest potential production areas has been totally overlooked by investors up to now – Central Asia. Formerly the USSR’s cotton “plantation,” the region is poised to become a major player in the production of biofuels if sufficient foreign investment can be procured. Unlike Brazil, where biofuel is manufactured largely from sugarcane, or the United States, where it is primarily distilled from corn, Central Asia’s ace resource is an indigenous plant, Camelina sativa.
Of the former Soviet Caucasian and Central Asian republics, those clustered around the shores of the Caspian, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have seen their economies boom because of record-high energy prices, while Turkmenistan is waiting in the wings as a rising producer of natural gas.
Farther to the east, in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, geographical isolation and relatively scant hydrocarbon resources relative to their Western Caspian neighbors have largely inhibited their ability to cash in on rising global energy demands up to now. Mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain largely dependent for their electrical needs on their Soviet-era hydroelectric infrastructure, but their heightened need to generate winter electricity has led to autumnal and winter water discharges, in turn severely impacting the agriculture of their western downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
What these three downstream countries do have however is a Soviet-era legacy of agricultural production, which in Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan case was largely directed towards cotton production, while Kazakhstan, beginning in the 1950s with Khrushchev’s “Virgin Lands” programs, has become a major producer of wheat. Based on my discussions with Central Asian government officials, given the thirsty demands of cotton monoculture, foreign proposals to diversify agrarian production towards biofuel would have great appeal in Astana, Ashgabat and Tashkent and to a lesser extent Astana for those hardy investors willing to bet on the future, especially as a plant indigenous to the region has already proven itself in trials.
Known in the West as false flax, wild flax, linseed dodder, German sesame and Siberian oilseed, camelina is attracting increased scientific interest for its oleaginous qualities, with several European and American companies already investigating how to produce it in commercial quantities for biofuel. In January Japan Airlines undertook a historic test flight using camelina-based bio-jet fuel, becoming the first Asian carrier to experiment with flying on fuel derived from sustainable feedstocks during a one-hour demonstration flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The test was the culmination of a 12-month evaluation of camelina’s operational performance capability and potential commercial viability.
As an alternative energy source, camelina has much to recommend it. It has a high oil content low in saturated fat. In contrast to Central Asia’s thirsty “king cotton,” camelina is drought-resistant and immune to spring freezing, requires less fertilizer and herbicides, and can be used as a rotation crop with wheat, which would make it of particular interest in Kazakhstan, now Central Asia’s major wheat exporter. Another bonus of camelina is its tolerance of poorer, less fertile conditions. An acre sown with camelina can produce up to 100 gallons of oil and when planted in rotation with wheat, camelina can increase wheat production by 15 percent. A ton (1000 kg) of camelina will contain 350 kg of oil, of which pressing can extract 250 kg. Nothing in camelina production is wasted as after processing, the plant’s debris can be used for livestock silage. Camelina silage has a particularly attractive concentration of omega-3 fatty acids that make it a particularly fine livestock feed candidate that is just now gaining recognition in the U.S. and Canada. Camelina is fast growing, produces its own natural herbicide (allelopathy) and competes well against weeds when an even crop is established. According to Britain’s Bangor University’s Centre for Alternative Land Use, “Camelina could be an ideal low-input crop suitable for bio-diesel production, due to its lower requirements for nitrogen fertilizer than oilseed rape.”
Camelina, a branch of the mustard family, is indigenous to both Europe and Central Asia and hardly a new crop on the scene: archaeological evidence indicates it has been cultivated in Europe for at least three millennia to produce both vegetable oil and animal fodder.
Field trials of production in Montana, currently the center of U.S. camelina research, showed a wide range of results of 330-1,700 lbs of seed per acre, with oil content varying between 29 and 40%. Optimal seeding rates have been determined to be in the 6-8 lb per acre range, as the seeds’ small size of 400,000 seeds per lb can create problems in germination to achieve an optimal plant density of around 9 plants per sq. ft.
Camelina’s potential could allow Uzbekistan to begin breaking out of its most dolorous legacy, the imposition of a cotton monoculture that has warped the country’s attempts at agrarian reform since achieving independence in 1991. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Russian government determined that Central Asia would become its cotton plantation to feed Moscow’s growing textile industry. The process was accelerated under the Soviets. While Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were also ordered by Moscow to sow cotton, Uzbekistan in particular was singled out to produce “white gold.”
By the end of the 1930s the Soviet Union had become self-sufficient in cotton; five decades later it had become a major exporter of cotton, producing more than one-fifth of the world’s production, concentrated in Uzbekistan, which produced 70 percent of the Soviet Union’s output.
Try as it might to diversify, in the absence of alternatives Tashkent remains wedded to cotton, producing about 3.6 million tons annually, which brings in more than $1 billion while constituting approximately 60 percent of the country’s hard currency income.
Beginning in the mid-1960s the Soviet government’s directives for Central Asian cotton production largely bankrupted the region’s scarcest resource, water. Cotton uses about 3.5 acre feet of water per acre of plants, leading Soviet planners to divert ever-increasing volumes of water from the region’s two primary rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, into inefficient irrigation canals, resulting in the dramatic shrinkage of the rivers’ final destination, the Aral Sea. The Aral, once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea with an area of 26,000 square miles, has shrunk to one-quarter its original size in one of the 20th century’s worst ecological disasters.
And now, the dollars and cents. Dr. Bill Schillinger at Washington State University recently described camelina’s business model to Capital Press as: “At 1,400 pounds per acre at 16 cents a pound, camelina would bring in $224 per acre; 28-bushel white wheat at $8.23 per bushel would garner $230.”
Central Asia has the land, the farms, the irrigation infrastructure and a modest wage scale in comparison to America or Europe – all that’s missing is the foreign investment. U.S. investors have the cash and access to the expertise of America’s land grant universities. What is certain is that biofuel’s market share will grow over time; less certain is who will reap the benefits of establishing it as a viable concern in Central Asia.
If the recent past is anything to go by it is unlikely to be American and European investors, fixated as they are on Caspian oil and gas.
But while the Japanese flight experiments indicate Asian interest, American investors have the academic expertise, if they are willing to follow the Silk Road into developing a new market. Certainly anything that lessens water usage and pesticides, diversifies crop production and improves the lot of their agrarian population will receive most careful consideration from Central Asia’s governments, and farming and vegetable oil processing plants are not only much cheaper than pipelines, they can be built more quickly.
And jatropha’s biofuel potential? Another story for another time.
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