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Biofuel Technology Rising to the Forefront


Central Asia has the capabilities, the US has the funding and expertise.

Editor's Note: This article was written by energy journalist and government energy adviser John C.K. Daly of, which offers free information and analysis on energy and commodities. The site has sections devoted to fossil fuels, alternative energy, metals, oil prices, and geopolitics.

The recent revelations of a International Energy Administration whistle-blower who revealed that the IEA may have distorted key oil projections under intense US pressure is, if true (and whistle-blowers rarely come forward to advance their careers), a slow-burning thermonuclear explosion on future global oil production.

The actions of George Bush's administration 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's primarily distilled from corn, Central Asia's ace resource is an indigenous plant called 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. In Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's case, this was largely directed toward cotton production, while Kazakhstan, beginning in the 1950s with Khrushchev's "Virgin Lands" programs, has become a major producer of wheat.

Based on discussions with Central Asian government officials, given the thirsty demands of cotton monoculture, foreign proposals to diversify agrarian production toward 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.
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