Britain's biggest oil company, BP, has left a venture to produce biofuel from a poisonous tropical shrub, which was once heralded as a wonder crop for its ability to grow on marginal land. The company said it had sold its stake in a jatropha joint venture to its partner, the UK biofuel specialist D1 Oils, for GBP500,000 (Dh3 million). BP does not plan to exit the biofuels business, but had decided to target other crops and the advanced fuel molecule biobutanol. "To ensure the success of these investments, BP is concentrating new business development in these areas and will no longer be directly involved in jatropha as a biofuel feedstock," it said. The decision is the latest blow to a new energy source that only two years ago had seemed to hold great promise for developing countries that were keen to plant a new cash crop that would not encroach on land used for growing food. BP and D1 teamed up in 2007 to launch a five-year, GBP80m project to cultivate jatropha in India, South East Asia and southern Africa. As of last month, they had planted about 220,000 hectares with the treelike plant that bears oily seeds. In that same year, Scientific American described jatropha oil as "green gold in a shrub". The science magazine said the crop "seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls". Jatropha got another publicity boost last year, when it was successfully used in a mix of biofuels to power a jet engine. That pointed to a high-flying future as an aviation fuel. But new studies suggest the hardy shrub, which grows wild in Central America, is not such an ideal fuel source after all. "The claim that jatropha doesn't compete for water and land with food crops is complete nonsense," said Arjen Hoekstra, a co-author of a study by researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands. "If there isn't sufficient water, you get a low amount of oil production." The study comparing 13 biofuel crops found that jatropha needed about 20,000 litres of water to yield a litre of biodiesel, roughly five times the water required to produce the biofuel ethanol from sugar cane or maize. Another recent study by Yale University scientists reached similar conclusions. "If you plant trees in a marginal area, and all they do is just not die, it doesn't mean you're going to get a lot of oil from them," said Rob Bailis, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "If you grow it in better agricultural conditions, all the alarm bells go off as you get into the same food-versus-fuel debate." Indeed, government subsidised jatropha programmes have already sparked protests in India and the Philippines. In the arid Indian state of Rajasthan, villagers opposed a government scheme to reclassify commons lands used for grazing livestock as "wasteland" suitable for jatropha. In Mindanao, the second biggest Philippine island, indigenous leaders complained that jatropha plantations were displacing subsistence crops of rice, corn, bananas and root vegetables. Environmental and human rights groups have reported rice paddies being drained for jatropha in the impoverished Indian state of Chhattisgarh, and jatropha plantations displacing food crops in Myanmar and southern Africa. Friends of the Earth has implicated plantations in Swaziland run by BP and D1. D1 is trying to develop new jatropha strains through crossbreeding that will yield more oil and require less irrigation. On Friday, the same day it disclosed its split with BP, it announced a tentative agreement to license technology developed from its agronomy and breeding programmes to Bedford Biofuels, a privately held Canadian company with jatropha plantations in Kenya and Zambia. BP has apparently decided its involvement in such research is not worth the effort. The big oil company has scaled back spending on renewable energy this year and cut employees at several solar cell manufacturing plants. But it said it was still on track to invest US$8 billion (Dh29.36bn) in renewables between 2005 and 2015. On Thursday, BP said it was continuing to build its wind portfolio, and had moved into full construction of the 200 megawatt second phase of a US wind farm in Indiana. email@example.com
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