Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Distilling whiskey waste into usable fuel

In this Tuesday, April 16, 2013 photo Vaclav Sitner, chief distiller, presents the single malt "Hammer Head" whisky in a distillery in Pradlo, Czech Republic. The "Hammer Head" whisky made in communist Czechoslovakia matured in oak barrels for more than twenty years to reach surprisingly good quality before hitting the market. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

A Scottish scientist and entrepreneur is betting that leftovers from brewing scotch can be distilled into diesel, according to CNN. 

Every liter of export-quality scotch whiskey leaves behind 2.5 kilograms of solids and 8 liters of fermented, sugar-rich pot ale — byproducts that are usually dumped in landfills or allowed to run off into waterways, CNN reported, citing data from Zero Waste Scotland.

Instead, Martin Tangney of Celtic Renewables wants to turn it — or other sugar-rich, watery waste products, like whey from dairies — into fuel.

“That’s where we see ourselves as adding value,” Tangney told CNN.

But scientists like Alison Smith of Oxford University have big concerns about biofuels and the environment, particularly around deforestation or the loss of agricultural land that could otherwise grow food, CNN reported. 

Nonetheless, brewing fuel from “genuine waste” such as that left behind by the whisky process is “probably the best possible kind of biofuel,” Smith said.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at why the European Union still can’t come to terms with an embargo on Russian oil. Then we’ll turn to Indonesia, which just enacted a sudden moratorium on exports of palm oil, the world’s leading cooking fat.

EU official: Russia energy embargo not yet realistic

European Union members states have yet to amass adequate support for a full-scale embargo on Russian oil and gas imports, a top EU diplomat confirmed on Monday, according to Reuters. 

“At the moment, we in the EU do not have a unified position on this question,” Josep Borrell told German-language newspaper Die Welt. 

Borrell’s comments occurred as some EU nations are advocating for a sixth sanctions package on Russia and while Brussels is assessing the impacts of a potential oil ban. 

What was the fifth package, again? The last package, adopted earlier this month, includes a variety of financial measures, as well as an import ban on all forms of Russian coal

That package, worth 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion) annually, shied away from prohibiting oil imports — although European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen indicated that the EU was working toward such a ban, as we previously reported. 

What’s the holdup with banning Russian oil? Russia is the bloc’s biggest oil supplier, providing more than a quarter of EU oil imports in 2020, Reuters reported, citing Eurostat. 

These oil exports are what Reuters described as “the Kremlin’s main source of foreign currency” and are effectively funding the war in Ukraine. 

Satellite imagery does suggest, however, that Russia is pumping nearly 10 percent less oil than before it invaded Ukraine, Business Insider reported. 

What about gas? Russian gas still makes up about 40 percent of the EU’s natural gas supply, and a complete abandonment of Russian gas is not likely, as we previously reported.  

Meanwhile, there are wide gaps between which countries import the most Russian gas in quantity and which are the most dependent on the gas they import — just as there are for oil.  

So what’s next? Borrell told Die Welt that the energy embargo will be up for discussion at at an EU summit at the end of next month but that he did not foresee any decision on the issue before then, according to Reuters. 

“A final proposal for an embargo on oil and gas is not yet on the table,” he said.


As Europe looks to accelerate renewable energy programs amid oil and gas supply uncertainties, these technologies have also become more vulnerable to security breaches in the process. 

Recent cyberattacks on three European wind energy firms have raised suspicions “that hackers sympathetic to Russia are trying to cause mayhem” in an industry poised to benefit from reduced reliance on Russian fossil fuels, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Pointing fingers: While Russia has consistently denied that it launches such attacks — and the infiltrated companies haven’t accused any particular criminal — the timing suggests potential links to supporters of Moscow’s invasion, the Journal reported, citing Brussels-based industry group WindEurope. 

What has happened thus far? The three companies targeted have all been based in Germany. 

Remote-control systems for about 2,000 Deutsche Windtechnik AG turbines were down for about a day in April, while turbine maker Nordex SE had to shut down information-technology systems on March 31. 

Turbine maker Enercon GmbH, meanwhile, said its 5,800 turbines were “collateral damage” in an attack on a satellite company in February that occurred “at almost exactly the same time that Russian troops invaded Ukraine,” according to the Journal. 

Higher security standards critical: Matthias Brandt, director of Deutsche Windtechnik, stressed the urgency for “high IT security standards” as the growing renewable energy industry becomes a bigger target for hackers. 

“The crisis in Russia and Ukraine shows us that renewables are replacing oil and gas in the future,” Brandt told the Journal.

Disorder looms as Indonesia cuts off key oil supply

Countries around the world are scrambling to secure new supplies of vegetable oil after Indonesia banned exports of processed palm oil last week — which risks worsening the ongoing political and economic upheaval from rising food prices. 

Global impacts: “Indonesia’s decision affects not only palm oil availability, but vegetable oils worldwide,” James Fry of commodities consultancy LMC International told Reuters on Monday. 

Vegetable oil prices are up more than 50 percent since November, Reuters reported. 

Price pressure: Indonesia banned exports on Thursday to protect citizens from soaring prices that made it “too expensive for the ordinary household to buy these cooking oils,” finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said, according to Reuters.  
She’s really sorry about it: “We know that this is not going to be the best result. If we are not going to export, that’s definitely going to hit the other countries,” Indrawati added. 

What is palm oil?: A smooth fat blended from the kernels of the West African palm fruit  — which despite the name is most commonly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to Yahoo Finance. 

Despite heavy links to tropical deforestation, palm oil is an extremely common ingredient in processed goods from margarine and Nutella spread to cosmetics, according to Reuters. 

Jakarta feels the pinch: But it also is a cooking fat on which billions depend, and Indonesia’s government has faced demonstrations over rising prices of palm oil and soybeans since March, the Australia Financial Review reported. 

Those became ever more intense in recent weeks as Indonesians complained of being unable to afford cooking oil before the seasonal Lebaran festival, the local name for the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, according to The Financial Times.


Drought in Canada and Argentina, combined with war in Ukraine, have caused dramatic bottlenecks in world oil supplies, according to Reuters. 

Canada is a world leading exporter of canola oil, Argentina of soybean oil and Ukraine of sunflower seed oil. 

Refuge in palm: The rise in prices as all of those supplies were constricted sent global food retailers clamoring for alternatives, and many turned to palm oil, according to Politico Europe. 

This aroused environmental concerns, as both palm and soybean oil are heavily linked to rising levels of tropical deforestation. 

But more immediately, it put Indonesians in sudden competition with global brands like Unilever. 

Local solution for a global problem: Jakarta initially tried to fight price impacts by breaking up palm oil cartels and investigating price fixing, or by directing national companies to reserve supply for internal sale, but this didn’t work. 

Who is benefiting? Indonesians will likely see lower oil prices, the Financial Times reported. 

Malaysia is already benefiting from increased export prices for its palm oil, but it doesn’t have enough to meet the gap, Reuters reported. 

China is making significant investments in peanuts — the source of its second favorite form of edible oil after palm, Canada’s Global Times reported. 

While that supply ramps up, Beijing is likely to buy more from US farmers under a bilateral trade deal. 

And soy farmers are already basking in the glow of high prices, which hit a record high on on Friday, according to Reuters. 

Who will lose? The poorer residents of countries and the planet as a whole. 

Falling dominoes: Indonesia’s cost-cutting move will lead to higher food prices around the world, as the Financial Times reported. 

That in turn could lead to greater unrest elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the South China Morning Post reported. 

A higher price means higher deforestation: “It’s bad news for people, forests and wildlife when vegetable oil hits record price highs,” Indonesia Greenpeace campaigner Kiki Taufik told Politico last month.

Monday Misfortunes

Fires out West, floods back East and a long ecological recovery for Ukraine. 

Ongoing Colorado drought turns April into June for wildfire risk 

As West burns, East faces floods 

  • While fires burn across the West, a belt of heavy thunderstorms are battering the eastern half of the U.S., raising risks of dangerous floods from Texas to Indiana, AccuWeather reported. 

Environmental impacts of war in Ukraine could last decades 

  • As the war in Ukraine continues to pollute the nation’s air, water and soil, experts are worried that the damage could persist for years, while raising risks of cancer, respiratory illnesses and developmental delays in children, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.


Tags Josep Borrell Ursula von der Leyen

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