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Feeding the 1%: An IT billionaire’s foray into agribusiness paints a disturbing picture of today’s farmland financiers

By staff - GRAIN, October 7, 2014

Since the global food crisis of 2008, there has been a massive wave of private sector investment in agriculture. More money flowing into agriculture means more innovation, more jobs and more food for a hungry planet, say the G8, the World Bank and corporate investors themselves.

But does it?

Looking at the investments made by Indian billionaire Chinnakannan Sivasankaran – one of the most active private sector players in the global rush to acquire farmland – a worrying picture emerges of what happens when speculative finance starts flowing into food production.

Since 2008, the Siva Group and its myriad subsidiaries have acquired stakes in around a million hectares of land in the Americas, Africa and Asia, primarily for oil palm plantations. On paper, this makes Sivasankaran one of the world’s largest farmland holders.

But Sivasankaran's also a land grabber and tax avoider. Like the majority of transnational investors in agriculture, his investments are channeled through a web of shell companies based in offshore tax havens. The companies he holds shares in are engaged in dubious land deals and kick back schemes, and seem more concerned with funnelling generous payments into the pockets of their directors than with producing food.

The alarming side effect of this type of investment is the commodification of land and the marginalisation of communities that rely on it. Wherever the Siva Group and its like go, they secure title to vast parcels of land by any means necessary – often without the meaningful consent of the affected communities. They then leverage these landholdings for cash and credit to turn still more deals.

Governments have so far done little, if anything to protect their people from this new wave of predatory investment. Their efforts have focussed more on providing investors with safeguards and incentives, while proposing only voluntary guidelines to keep corporate responsibility in check. The door is thus wide open for financial players like Sivasankaran to grab lands and make quick profits, undermining food systems and the livelihoods of farmers in the process.

Read the report (PDF).

How the Walton Family is Threatening Our Clean Energy Future

By Stacy Mitchell - Institute for Local Self-Reliance, October 2014

Critical fights over the future of our energy system are underway in dozens of states, with far-reaching implications for both climate change and our economy. At issue is the recent, rapid expansion of rooftop solar, which is revolutionizing who owns and profits from electricity generation. Rather than power production being monopolized by utilities, more and more households are becoming energy producers themselves. This transition is saving families money and driving the creation of tens of thousands of well-paying jobs.

But rooftop solar threatens the profits of utilities and the companies that supply them with energy. These powerful interests have gone on the offensive and are campaigning to weaken policies that enable rooftop solar in multiple states. They have begun to score wins, including a pivotal victory in Arizona, where regulators granted the state’s largest utility, APS, the right to impose new fees on households with rooftop solar. The fees have undermined the economics of rooftop solar, dramatically slowing installations and causing widespread job losses.

Read the report (PDF).

The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s Dirty Dollars: U.S. tax dollars are supporting human rights, environment, and labor violations at the Sasan Coal-Fired Power Plant and Mine in India

By various - Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, Pacific Environment, and FOE, October 2014

In January and May 2014, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, Pacific Environment, and Friends of the Earth U.S. (hereafter referred to as the Fact Finding Team), undertook two field visits to Singrauli, India, to meet with communities affected by Reliance Power’s Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) and its associated mine to assess the project’s effect on local communities and the environment.

Since the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) approved over $900 million in financing for the coal project in October 2010, little information has been provided by the agency about Sasan’s compliance with Ex-Im environmental, social, human rights, and corruption policies. This includes the Bank’s commitments under the Equator Principles1 and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards,2 the agency’s environmental, social, human rights and corruption policies, as well whether or not the project has lived up to the expectations laid out in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) documents for the mine and the power plant. An apparent lack of oversight prompted the NGOs involved in this report to conduct this independent investigation. The Fact Finding Team has uncovered numerous reports of corruption and human rights and labor violations associated with the Sasan coal project, all of which have largely been ignored by the Ex- Im Bank.

Read the report (PDF).

Drilling Deeper: a Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom

By J David Hughes - Post Carbon Institute, October 2014

In recent years Americans have been hearing that the United States is poised to regain its role as the world’s premier oil and natural gas producer, thanks to the widespread use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). This “shale revolution,” we’re told, will fundamentally change the U.S. energy picture for decades to come—leading to energy independence, a rebirth of U.S. manufacturing, and a surplus supply of both oil and natural gas that can be exported to allies around the world. This promise of oil and natural gas abundance is influencing climate policy, foreign policy, and investments in alternative energy sources.

The primary source for these rosy expectations of future production is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Each year the DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases its Annual Energy Outlook (AEO), which provides a range of forecasts for energy production, consumption, and prices.

The 2014 AEO reference case projects U.S. crude oil production to rise to 9.6 million barrels of oil per day (MMbbl/d) in 2019 and slowly decline to 7.5 MMbbl/d by 2040, while natural gas production is projected to grow for at least the next 25 years and hit 37.5 trillion cubic feet per year in 2040. Tight oil (shale oil) and shale gas serve as the foundation for these optimistic forecasts.

This report provides an extensive analysis of actual production data from the top seven tight oil and seven shale gas plays in the U.S. (These plays account for 89% of current tight oil production and 88% of current shale gas production, and serve as the primary sources of future production in the EIA’s forecasts—82% of forecast tight oil and 88% of forecast shale gas production through 2040.) It concludes that the current boom in domestic oil and gas production is unsustainable at the rates projected by the EIA, and that the EIA’s tight oil and shale gas forecasts to 2040 are extremely optimistic. What this means is that the country's current energy policy—which is largely based on the expectation of domestic oil and natural gas abundance far into the future—is badly misguided and is setting the country up for a painful, costly, and unexpected shock when the boom ends.

Chevron Richmond Refinery August 6, 2014 Pipe Rupture and Fire [REPORT NO. 2012-03-I-CA OCTOBER 2014]

By staff - U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, October 2014

An August 6, 2012, release of flammable vapor led to a fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. The CSB released three investigation reports into this incident.

This report is particularly sigificant in that it reveals that the refinery workers repeatedly tried to warn the managers and employers of the deteriorating conditions of the refinery's infrastructure (which led to the fire), but were ignored. Knowing this, climate justice activists and organizers can develope relationships with workers in capitalist extractive industries and do the painstaking, tedious work of cultivating relationships and building trust to build a united front against the capitalist class.

Read the report (English PDF).

San Francisco Bay Area Oil Infrastructure

The following pamphlet, compiled by Gifford Hartman (Fall 2014) offers a brief, and concise description of the five oil refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area, located northeast of San Francisco. [PDF File]

The Effect of Natural Gas Supply on US Renewable Energy and CO2 Emissions

By Christine Shearer, et. al. - Environmental Research Letters, September 9, 2014

Increased use of natural gas has been promoted as a means of decarbonizing the US power sector, because of superior generator efficiency and lower CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal. We model the effect of different gas supplies on the US power sector and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Across a range of climate policies, we find that abundant natural gas decreases use of both coal and renewable energy technologies in the future. Without a climate policy, overall electricity use also increases as the gas supply increases. With reduced deployment of lower-carbon renewable energies and increased electricity consumption, the effect of higher gas supplies on GHG emissions is small: cumulative emissions 2013–55 in our high gas supply scenario are 2% less than in our low gas supply scenario, when there are no new climate policies and a methane leakage rate of 1.5% is assumed. Assuming leakage rates of 0 or 3% does not substantially alter this finding. In our results, only climate policies bring about a significant reduction in future CO2 emissions within the US electricity sector. Our results suggest that without strong limits on GHG emissions or policies that explicitly encourage renewable electricity, abundant natural gas may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies.

Read the report (PDF).

Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies

By Edgar G. Hertwich, et. al. - National Academy of Sciences of the United States, September 3, 2014

Decarbonization of electricity generation can support climate-change mitigation and presents an opportunity to address pollution resulting from fossil-fuel combustion. Generally, renewable technologies require higher initial investments in infrastructure than fossil-based power systems. To assess the trade offs of increased up-front emissions and reduced operational emissions, we present, to our knowledge, the first global, integrated life-cycle assessment (LCA) of long-term, wide-scale implementation of electricity generation from renewable sources (i.e., photovoltaic and solar thermal, wind, and hydropower) and of carbon dioxide capture and storage for fossil power generation. We compare emissions causing particulate matter exposure, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and climate change for the climate-change-mitigation (BLUE Map) and business-as-usual (Baseline) scenarios of the International Energy Agency up to 2050. We use a vintage stock model to conduct an LCA of newly installed capacity year-by-year for each region, thus accounting for changes in the energy mix used to manufacture future power plants. Under the Baseline scenario, emissions of air and water pollutants more than double whereas the low-carbon technologies introduced in the BLUE Map scenario allow a doubling of electricity supply while stabilizing or even reducing pollution. Material requirements per unit generation for low-carbon technologies can be higher than for conventional fossil generation: 11–40 times more copper for photovoltaic systems and 6–14 times more iron for wind power plants. However, only two years of current global copper and one year of iron production will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs in 2050.

Read the report (PDF).

The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking

By staff - Food and Water Watch, September 2014

The term “fracking” has come to mean far more than just the specific process of hydraulic fracturing, when companies inject large volumes of fracking fluid composed of water, sand and chemicals deep underground, at extreme pressure, to create fractures in targeted rock formations to bring oil and gas to the surface.

Today, the term “fracking” represents the host of problems that this dangerous process entails. This report details evidence on the many reasons why fracking is unsafe and should be banned, including:

  • Fracking water contamination destroys families’ drinking water. Pollution from fracking chemicals contaminates drinking water and puts peoples’ health at risk.
  • Fracking produces massive volumes of toxic and radioactive waste. The disposal of this waste is causing earthquakes and putting drinking water resources at risk.
  • Fracking pumps hazardous pollutants into the air. Fracking uses over 100 dangerous chemicals known to cause life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
  • Fracking destabilizes the climate. Fracking wells release large amounts of methane gas, which is known to trap 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the decades after it is emitted, contributing greatly to climate change.
  • Fracking disrupts local communities. Fracking presents a broad number of consequences for people living in areas where it is occurring, including damage to public roads, declines in property value, increased crime and an increased demand on emergency services.
  • Fracking causes thousands of accidents, leaks and spills. More than 7,500 accidents related to fracking occurred in 2013, negatively impacting water quality in rivers, streams and shallow aquifers.

Read the report (PDF).

Wrong Side of the Tracks: Why Rail is Not the Answer to the Tar Sands Market Access Problem

By Lorne Stockman, et. al. - Oil Change International, September 2014

Tar sands pipelines face increasing resistance both in the United States and Canada. As existing pipelines reach capacity, the delay and possible cancellation of new pipelines is costing tar sands producers billions of dollars and reducing investment in the sector. The success of anti-pipeline campaigns has forced industry to look to rail in an attempt to address these losses and open new markets for their product.

The crude oil produced from the Albertan tar sands is a semi-solid substance called bitumen, rather than a liquid crude oil. Shipping bitumen by rail is more expensive than shipping it by pipeline and the added cost is a substantial challenge to the long-term viability of the tar sands industry. Despite significant evidence, market analysis, and real world experience to the contrary, some prominent institutions - including the U.S. Department of State - continue to assert that rail has the potential to replace tar sands pipeline capacity, and thus the rapid pace of tar sands development will continue regardless of whether new pipeline capacity is built or not.

This report details why this is not the case.

Read the report (English PDF).

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