Saturday, 20 September 2008

Environment Agency neglect has lead to floodwater backing up

By Michael Wigan
Last Updated: 4:01pm BST 19/09/2008

Britain's tragically swamped farmland is often a self-inflicted woe, claim farmers.

Years of neglected draining by the Government's Environment Agency (EA) have resulted in blocked watercourses causing floodwater to back up and take longer to reach the sea.This is a side-effect of the fashion embraced by Government agencies and championed by conservation charities for minimal land management or active reversion to pre-modern farming landscapes.

Dr Helen Phillips of Natural England, articulating these policies, has talked about the need to create more floodplains, restore wetlands by blocking-up old drainage channels, and allow rivers to find their own courses.
Sadly, this is incompatible with food-growing, reducing carbon emissions, and the management of land for the delivery of benefit to humans. Supposedly for the sake of wildlife habitat, 're-wilding', as some call it, looks non-sensical to food producers.
Summer flooding has put this whole approach to land management under pressure. The Government's soggy silence over the woes of farming betrays an anxiety that a link will be made between the failure of the nation's harvest, soil losses, and farmers' inability to get onto land and sow next season's crop, and their own whacky policies.
Have they made the effects of bad weather worse? If so, when will insurance companies be asking them what they are up to?
One area in agony is East Yorkshire. Arable farmer David Curtis claims that on his 650 acre farm near Driffield there would have been no flooding at all if drains had been properly maintained. As it is, he has lost 20 acres of wheat worth, say, £10,000, food lost to the nation.
Mr Curtis says it is all politics. Reeds in drains used to be cut by local drainage boards. No more. Drains used to be dredged allowing water to get to sea and soils to dry out for cropping and sowing. No more. 'One wonders', he asks, 'Whether management is up to the job?'
With Yorkshire bluntness Mr Curtis says: 'It has nothing to do with global warming. This is about practical realities.' He points out that he, like all farmers, has invested in tile-draining in herring-bone patterns to aereate and drain land, and make it workable.
However, tile-drains have to debouche into a free-flowing watercourse. Now, he says, the pressure from blocked flood-land is pressurising his drains, filling them with silt, and rendering them useless.
Is the problem a wrong philosophy? 'It's a disease', he says.
When the first floods hit East Yorkshire in early August the EA, under pressure to help, brought in weed-cutting machinery. They machined some weed away and departed. But they omitted to cut downstream, so water backed up again. 'Their own drivers think they're crazy', claims Curtis.
The solution? 'We need a simple programme maintained year-on-year, clearing reeds, keeping banks clean, and dredging away siltation', says Curtis.
Local chartered surveyor John Atkinson makes a distinction between the local drainage boards which are efficient and have good people, and the boffins in the EA besotted with their unworldly dreams of re-creating mediaeval landscapes.
He cites a drainage problem photographed in the Yorkshire Post where water merely trickled to the sea from a blocked ditch against a panorama of damaged flood-land.
He says the River Hull is flowing, even in today's flood conditions, at half its normal size. Trees are left lying over, or in, the river, in purist devotion to the laissez-faire ideal.
Mr Atkinson cites the contradictory fact that local farmers on lower land still pay drainage rates but for a service often abandoned.
The consequence of all this, in Mr Atkinson's view, is that: 'Large areas of arable land will go out of production.'
It seems hardly possible that we will be importing more grains from over the world, in ships belching bunker fuel emissions, because we decline to clean the drains here at home.
Then, abandoning land to the encroaching sea might also seem strange, and yet it is national policy in parts of East Anglia.
The RSPB at its famous Titchwell Reserve in Norfolk, pre-empting natural events, intends to move back a defensive sea-wall and allow the sea to roll in.
Paul Temple of the NFU, whose telephone has been getting hot with farmers watching flood levels edge up the cabs of their marooned combines and tractors, says: 'Make no mistake, there is real frustration with this policy from land users.'
He says that with rising food imports and land being lost to development, 'We cannot afford at this time to have unnecessary flooding and land not to drain properly.' Surreally, some EA officials have told him that draining is retrogressive and does not work.
It might be worth telling that to the Dutch, who reclaimed the polders and using hand-tools and windmills won an extra third of their sovereign territory from the sea.
What gives an even nastier twist to the dilemma facing farmers here is that under new good stewardship rules farmers could be prosecuted for soil-loss and lose entitlement to supports for their environmental stewardship.
Until around ten years ago farmers remember drainage board workers walking the drains in winter-time armed with spades and brush- cutters. Now farmers feel that management is determined by theoretical models, and conducted from hidden bunkers.
If Britain is to feed itself to a greater extent and narrow the yawning gap in food sufficiency, someone will have to get back into those drains and start the laborious task of winning back the free passage of water.
Tim Rymer of JSR Farms at Southburn in Yorkshire sums up, 'The EA objective should be to get water away from where it shouldn't be to where it should be, and fast.'
Otherwise, as summers get wetter, we can look forward to more coffee-coloured floodwater over farmland, less crop, more property damage, and an even more stricken food production sector.

No quick resolution to food versus fuel debate

Saturday September 20 2008
By Christine Stebbins

ST. LOUIS, Sept 19 (Reuters) -

The government mandate for a much more aggressive U.S. policy to produce crop-based fuels is less than a year old but it has spurred one of the biggest battles within the agricultural industry in decades.
The mandate, included in a landmark energy law signed in late 2007, set off a record run in prices of corn and soybeans, the main crops used for bio-based fuels like ethanol. Farmers, and their bankers, applauded, as demand exploded.
But that huge new crop demand from energy refiners also has choked off profits of food producers from cereal makers to vegoil producers to the livestock growers, dairy farmers and fish farms faced with soaring feed prices.
Food raw material prices have risen at rates that have alarmed economists, including the U.S. Federal Reserve and other policymakers. In August, wholesale food prices were 9 percent above a year ago -- the biggest jump since 1981.
The critics all cite the same reason: the biofuels "craze" as a wrong-headed, shortsighted policy that has to change. That view had ample play on Friday at a round-table discussion of experts at the annual Soyatech soybean industry conference.
"The fact that we've framed this as a food versus fuel debate is absolutely correct," Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions and a consultant to food industries, said.
"Ultimately we are going to find out that it is going to be tough to find enough acres to meet all these demands."
The U.S. energy bill mandated that biofuels production must jump roughly five-fold to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Some eventually will be made from new materials like straw and switchgrass. But meanwhile -- especially in the last year -- the law has meant much bigger portion of the U.S. corn and soybean crops have been diverted to non-food use.
Almost a quarter of the U.S. corn crop will be diverted to ethanol production this year. Biodiesel, made from soybean oil, is also expanding steadily.
"Food guys are not going to leave themselves short. They will win the battle although it may come at a great deal of cost and expense to manufacturers and consumers," Lapp, formerly head of economic research at food giant Conagra Inc, said in predicting more retail food price gains.
Gary Blumenthal, chief executive of Washington-based World Perspectives, agreed: "Food will win out first and foremost because we will choose to eat ahead of driving our car."
Faced with soaring food inflation, the battle over using food to produce fuel has created a growing backlash against biofuels that put the Bush Administration, a strong backer for last year's biofuel's legislation, in an odd cross-fire.
Last month, the Republican Party even included a plank in its 2008 campaign platform calling for an end to the biofuels mandates for ethanol.
But proponents of biofuels at Friday's round-table were undaunted, claiming that biofuels were not just necessary for U.S. energy independence but for a stronger rural economy.
"It makes us a much more energy independent nation -- it also allows us to create an America where we once again construct, make and build things," said Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, the top U.S. grower of corn and soybeans.
Biofuels boosters also continued to argue about the extent that soaring crop prices are linked to increased biofuels demand versus other factors, including rising world population, soaring energy and transport and fertilizer costs, and demand for higher protein diets in a wealthier China and India.
Recent government and private studies have estimated anywhere from 3 to 15 percent (some say even higher) of the rise in U.S. corn and soybean prices can be tied to expanded biofuels demand.
But analysts at the round-table said there is a tighter price correlation between Chicago Board of Trade corn and soybeans with crude oil than with ethanol or other energy prices.
"The cause is the question -- no doubt about the correlation," David Lehman, director of commodity research for CBOT parent CME Group, told the conference.
Government regulators are now reviewing the role of big speculators in the record price rallies in both energy and agricultural futures markets over the last year.
(Reporting by Christine Stebbins; editing by Carol Bishopric)

Double amount in subsidies for Scots power set to make waves

Published Date: 20 September 2008
By Jenny Haworth

NEW wave energy schemes in Scotland are set to receive more than double the level of subsidies than those in England, it has emerged.

The Scottish Government hopes the new system will help attract the renewables industry to Scotland.The Renewables Obligation system of subsidies would also see wave projects in Scotland get five times the level of subsidy as wind and hydro.Wind projects currently get about £47 for every megawatt hour of power produced. If the new plans are adopted, a wave scheme would get five times this amount, or about £235. In contrast, similar schemes in England are set to get just two-fifths the amount of those in Scotland, and just double the amount paid to wind farms, or about £94 per mega watt hour. In the past year the Renewables Obligation has added £12 to the average fuel bill and Scottish Government officials say the new banding would add a maximum of another 40 pence.A Scottish Government insider admitted the new system, which is out for consultation, was in part a bid to "get one over" on England, by attracting wave projects to Scotland.Jim Mather, the energy minister, said: "The changes we propose give Scotland a lead over other parts of the UK. We are taking every opportunity to make Scotland the place to develop, test and generate electricity from our huge natural resources."In doing so we can create a new, world-leading industry here in Scotland while taking a global role in tackling climate change and reducing emissions."It is estimated Scotland has 25 per cent of Europe's wave renewables potential, and 10 per cent of its tidal potential. The Scottish Government aims to provide 50 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and aspires to become the European leader in green energy. It has already announced its £10 million marine energy Saltire Prize.Jason Ormiston, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the green energy trade body, said he was pleased by the support for renewables.He said: "The industry has always appreciated the support from the Scottish Government by this administration and the previous administration because they have recognised the economic benefit that can be brought to Scotland but also the environmental benefit of tackling climate change. We have a reputation as a world leader in tackling climate change and we have to maintain that."However, he hit out at plans to bring in lower subsidies for tidal schemes than for wave projects. Tidal will get just 50 per cent more than wind, whereas wave will get two-and-a-half times the amount.Liberal Democrat energy spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said the announcement sends out the right signal, but added: "This ministerial obsession with trumping the rest of the UK misses the point. Pelamis' presence in Portugal (a wave project] demonstrates that the competition is international."The new Renewables Obligation (Scotland) scheme is scheduled to start in April 2009.


THE complex Renewables Obligation scheme demands that every supplier provides a certain percentage of its electricity to customers from green sources, such as wind farms or hydro schemes.Currently they must supply 9 per cent of their energy from renewable sources, rising to 15.4 per cent in 2015.The watchdog body Ofgem issues Renewable Obligation Certificates to generators for every megawatt hour of power they provide from renewables. Generators sell these to suppliers, so they can fulfil the obligation. They currently sell for about £47. Any supplier that does not have enough certificates to meet its 9 per cent obligation must pay a fine. The money collected in fines is shared out between suppliers on the basis of the amount of certificates they had.The system does not rely on any money from government, but can affect the consumer because suppliers can pass the costs of paying for the certificates on to their customers, putting up householders' bills.

India signs agreement to build two dams in Myanmar

The Associated Press
Published: September 19, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar: An Indian state enterprise has agreed to help build two hydroelectric dams in northwestern Myanmar, Myanmar state media reported Friday.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that the country's Hydroelectric Power Department signed a memorandum of understanding with India's National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd. to build the 1200-megawatt Htamanthi hydroelectric power project and the 600-megawatt Shwesaya project in northwestern Chin state.
The agreement was signed Tuesday in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw, said the report, which provided no further details.
India is Myanmar's western neighbor, and competes for influence with China, the ruling junta's closest ally and diplomatic supporter.
India, the world's largest democracy, was a harsh critic of the junta in the immediate aftermath of its suppression of a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. But concern that China was gaining too much influence over Myanmar contributed to a diplomatic about-face, and relations have improved significantly since 2000, with the country's leaders exchanging visits.

The second-highest ranking member of Myanmar's junta, Vice Senior Gen. Maung Aye, visited India in April to witness the signing of a US$120 million project to upgrade waterways and highways along Myanmar's Kaladan River and develop the port of Sittwe in western Myanmar.
During a visit to Myanmar by an India minister in June this year, India agreed to provide Myanmar with US$84 million in loans and credits to build power transmission lines and an aluminum plant.

US leads

By Alice Ross
Published: September 20 2008 03:00

A number of UK fund managers are looking to the US for opportunities as the country leads the way in energy efficiency technology.
"US companies have become an increasingly significant part of my portfolio and it is likely that this exposure will increase further going forward," says Charlie Thomas, manager of the Jupiter Green Investment Trust and the Jupiter Ecology Fund.
One technology seeing strong growth is automated metering, used by utility companies to charge more for electricity at peak times. BlackRock New Energy Trust, a UK-listed investment company, has increased its holding in Itron, a main player in the area.
Another of Blackrock's holdings is American Superconductor, which irons out inefficiencies in electricity grids. It added 10 per cent to its share price over the past year.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Green light for investing in energy efficient companies

By Josephine Cumbo
Published: September 20 2008 03:00

Gordon Brown's recent pledge to invest £1bn in making thousands of homes more energy efficient provided some relief for householders struggling with soaring gas and electricity bills. But they are not the only ones who could benefit from this initiative. Investors are also being encouraged to plug into the potential of the energy efficiency sector.
Energy efficiency companies include those making "greener" lightbulbs, batteries, fans and lightweight motors. So, measured as a sector, the biggest companies have a combined market capitalisation that is estimated at $390bn (£218bn) and include companies such as Siemens and Philips.
About £36m of private equity and venture capital investment has also poured into the UK's energy efficiency sector this year and industry analysts say this is set to grow. "We see energy efficiency as the most likely recipient of venture capital and private equity investment for the remainder of 2008 and 2009," says Estelle Lloyd, managing director of VB Research, a firm covering clean technologies and renewable energy.
"Energy efficiency has a wide market including consumers, residential and commercial properties, utilities and property developers to name a few," she adds.
"Government policy is favourable to its growth and examples of this include new requirements for buildings to have energy performance certificates and zero-emission targets for new-builds by the year 2010."
Other factors driving bullish outlooks for the sector include EU and US targets to reduce vehicle emissions. Most major countries are also banning incandescent lightbulbs.
Fund managers say the sector's growth prospects are further underpinned by a recent rise in M&A activity by the industry's big players.
"Large established companies are seeking out growth opportunities and they see energy efficiency as one of these areas," says Bruce Jenkyn-Jones, investment director with Impax Asset Management.
"For example, Schneider Electric and Siemens just recently made acquisitions into the sector."
Growing interest in energy efficiency comes amid a global surge in funding for companies operating in broader alternative energy or environmental markets.
The amount of venture capital and private equity going into "clean energy" firms, including energy efficiency, solar and wind power, jumped in the second quarter of 2008 to a record $5.8bn, up from $2.6bn in the first quarter, according to New Energy Finance, which tracks trends in the sector.
Equity markets have seen similarly increased activity, with a spate of environmental fund launches this year. Recognising this trend, the FTSE Environmental Opportunities All-Share index was launched in June, providing a transparent performance benchmark for retail and institutional investors.
UK investors wishing to tap into the energy efficiency sector can do so via broad-based environmental or climate change investment trusts, or Oeics, which invest in a mix of sectors such as solar, wind and renewables.
But what distinguishes these funds and are they delivering returns?
"Funds like Virgin's Climate Change invest in companies that have lower carbon footprints, but aren't necessarily directly tackling climate change," says Nigel Parsons, investment manager with Bestinvest, the financial advisers. "Whereas a fund like Impax's Environmental Leaders is more of a direct play into medium and large cap energy efficiency companies."
Mick Gilligan of Killik & Co says environmental funds that are more direct plays are generally performing better, but the sector as a whole is holding up well. "I think these funds are a viable long-term theme as a lot of the underlying stocks are in demand," says Gilligan, whose favoured play on new energy is via BlackRock.
However, there may be downsides to investing in focused funds, say other advisors. "Neptune's Green Planet fund has underperformed what is probably a reasonable benchmark for it, the MSCI World Small Cap Index, since launch in late 2006," says Robert Lockie, a certified financial planner with Bloomsbury Financial Planning. "This does not prove that it is a poor investment (under two years is not enough data) but it does illustrate how hard it is to outperform a diversified index when there are noninvestment constraints."
But with the government yet to step up its climate change initiatives, advisers say the future will offer more choice for investors.
"Climate Change investment is not a fad or investment bubble because the fundamental drivers behind its existence are human development and it will require sustained investment over the next century," says Mark Hoskin of Holden & Partners, the wealth managers.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008