BP Gives up on Jatropha for Biofuel
By Keith Johnson
Speculation abounded this summer that BP was ready to jettison its participation in the project with British partner partner D1 Oils. The original plan called for the investment of $160 million to turn the jatropha tree into feedstock to make transportation fuel. Now, BP will turn its alternative-fuel efforts toward ethanol in Brazil and the U.S., as well as biobutanol.
The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper end to BP's jatropha adventure underscores a couple of key points. First, the inedible but hardy plant that just a few years ago seemed like it could revolutionize biofuels has turned into a bust. The initial attraction was that it grows on marginal land, so it wouldn't compete with food crops. But marginal land means marginal yields. And jatropha turned out to be a water hog as well, further darkening its environmental credentials.
Second, for all the ink spilt over jatrophaand Big Oil's interest in biofuels in generalthe value of some of those investments really is miniscule. D1 Oils will buy out BP's half of the venture for 500,000 poundsless than the price of a nice apartment in Londoneven though the joint venture is apparently worth more than 7 million pounds.
And this wasn't a piddling venture, as far as jatropha experiments go: Reuters notes that BP and D1 Oils planted more than 200,000 hectares of the stuff25% of the worldwide jatropha planting.
So BP's biofuel attentions will focus on three different areas. In Brazil, it will turn its attention back to sugarcane. In the U.S., it is working with Verenium to turn switchgrass into second-generation ethanol, though the economics are still murky. And there's always biobutanol.
In a week when Exxon placed a relatively big bet on algae as a source of biofuel, it's not that Big Oil has given up on alternative fuelsit's just becoming more selective about where it places its chips.
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