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Fill 'er up with gumweed

Three decades ago, a University of Nevada researcher who obtained one of the first U.S. Energy Department grants to study the potential to turn plants into biofuels became convinced that a roadside weed — curly top gumweed — was growing along the road to the future.

Now, scientists who've been cultivating gumweed on the Reno campus think they are on the verge of producing diesel fuel, and perhaps someday jet fuel, from the sticky cousin of the sunflower that grows across much of Nevada's high desert and doesn't compete for acreage with animal feed or food crops used to make ethanol.

Glenn Miller, an environmental sciences professor in UNR's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, is leading the project in the second year of a four-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Miller didn't know much about gumweed when Darrell Lemaire, a mining engineer, secured the DOE grant in 1980 and approached him about doing some research in his lab.

Lemaire was an interesting guy.

"He read chemical abstracts for recreation," Miller recalled. "He built a big house up in the rocks (above campus) with a wine cellar 50 feet down. He gave me a couple bottles — of Gumweed Extract, 1981-82, 1982-83."

The two scientists began growing gumweed on campus about 10 years ago and their project evolved from the premise that biofuels shouldn't be competing with food crops in Nebraska and Kansas.

Gumweed, also known as tar weed, requires little water to grow.

"You could grow it in places like Nevada where you are not growing soybeans or corn," Miller said.

Lemaire, 89, published his findings in a 1982 book, Cultivation of Hydrocarbon Producing Plants Native to the Western U.S., and the Whole Plant Utilization of the Oils and Byproducts.

"This was after the Carter years when Jimmy Carter wore sweaters whenever he addressed the nation from the White House to indicate to everybody we were running out of energy," Miller said.

Miller said UNR researchers have successfully produced fuel by extracting hydrocarbons from the weed's oil and are in the process of getting it tested as a diesel fuel. Now it's a question of refining the process to determine if farmers can make money on it.

In recent years, environmentalists have argued that ethanol adds to global warming by removing millions of acres of land from conservation reserve programs for use in corn production, and has led to higher food costs worldwide as more corn is used for fuel.

Bill Payne, dean of UNR's College of Agriculture, said the gumweed research addresses those concerns while anticipating current low oil prices won't last forever.

"As prices once again reach $80 or more per barrel, this type of technology will look increasingly attractive to an industrial world struggling to reduce its carbon emissions," Payne said.

Hongfei Lin, a collaborator in UNR's College of Engineering, is trying to find a more cost-effective way to convert biomass into fuel. Instead of adding hydrogen to biomass, he's exploring utilization of oxidation — the same process involved when substances come in contact with oxygen molecules, such as when a fresh cut apple turns brown or a copper penny turns green.

Lin estimates that if gumweed was raised on just 10 per cent of the thousands of square miles in Nevada where sagebrush currently grows, it could produce an estimated 400 million to 600 million gallons of biofuels annually.

Gumweed has been used many different ways historically. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes and early pioneers chomped on it as a substitute for chewing gum.

"I have tried eating the stuff," Miller said. "It tastes terrible. I don't think there's any future in that."


Struggling to pay bills

A new survey from Manulife Bank suggests that nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have struggled to cover their household expenses at least once in the past year.

Sixty-two per cent of those polled said they were never "caught short" without enough money in their bank account to cover expenses in the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent found themselves in that position once or twice in the past 12 months, 10 per cent were short on cash a few times a year and four per cent said they were caught short almost every month.

Lines of credit were the most popular solution for those who came up short, with 33 per cent reporting that they accessed one the last time they were short on funds.

The online survey conducted by Environics Research between July 22 and August 7 polled 2,372 homeowners across the country.

Respondents were between the ages of 20 to 59 and had a household income of at least $50,000.

The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, the polling industry's professional body, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error due to their lack of random sampling.

"The challenge faced by many Canadians is that their income is relatively stable from month-to-month, but their expenses can vary significantly," Rick Lunny, president and CEO of Manulife Bank of Canada, said in a statement.

"Access to rainy day savings or a low-cost line of credit are good options to safeguard against these fluctuations. However, if your backup plan is to carry high-interest credit card debt or borrow from a family member — you could be putting undue stress on your finances or relationships."

Charity 'an investment'

More than nine in 10 Canadians follow the example of reformed miser Ebenezer Scrooge and give to charity every year, but experts advise taking a page from his tightwad ways and treat those charitable donations like an investment.

Philanthropy professionals and charity watchdogs say that as the holiday season approaches and the airwaves fill with messages of altruism, you should still analyze your chosen charities the same way you would research the purchase of mutual funds or property.

Financial adviser Kate Bahen, managing director of watchdog group Charity Intelligence Canada, says key things to look for include whether the charity's financial statements are audited and up-to-date, if the charity has an independent oversight board, and if it spends more on programs than administration and fundraising.

"People need to look at that giving as an investment," she says. "If they could bring that business brain to the giving table, I think that's where we would see such huge change in Canada for the good."

Bahen says charities will often play on the heartstrings by telling one story of one client in need, but big businesses don't ever limit their quarterly reports to talking about just one customer.

While Tiny Tim's blessing brought a smile to Scrooge's face, he would surely also be pleased by the charity tax credits offered by the federal government that can reduce your total income and therefore, your tax bill.

The Canada Revenue Agency gives a tax credit of 15 per cent on the first $200 you donate, rising to 29 per cent for amounts over $200. If you haven't donated before, you can claim an additional 25 per cent tax credit for any donations made before the end of 2017, up to $1,000. The provinces have their own tax credits.

The CRA posts a searchable list of the more than 85,000 registered charities in Canada online and provides a detailed breakdown of their finances. Third-party organizations such as Charity Intelligence Canada also provides guidance on giving and ratings on individual charities.

Lawyer Mark Blumberg says people are happiest when their tax savings reflect their values.

"It would be nice if people would have a sense of how they want to give, so that at the end of the year when you look at all the receipts you have it is a fair reflection of what you want to support," he says.

He says Canadians shouldn't just rely on the grades given out by third parties to make their decisions.

The best way to get to know if a charity is worthy of your support is to volunteer, he adds.

Financial planner Cynthia Kett says it's best to form long-term relationships with charities that share your values, instead of doling out many smaller gifts throughout the year.

"We often have a tendency to make donations on the fly, and I think it's useful to be strategic in your giving," she said.

When it comes to taxes, Kett says it's important to understand the nuances of the charitable giving tax credit.

Because the first $200 has a lower credit, married couples can save a little money by combining their donations on one return and having the higher-income spouse claim the credit.

Kett says Canadians should report their charitable donations every year, but can hold off on claiming for up to five years in order to maximize their returns. You can also use your spouse's unclaimed charitable donations towards your returns.

Sandra Miniutti, chief financial officer of American watchdog group Charity Navigator, says that over the last decade, more and more charities have begun to measure the impact of their work and publicize the results.

She says those looking to give should make sure their chosen charity is monitoring the outcome of its work.

"If you're not measuring and tracking your impact, how do you know you're doing good and not harm?"


More fines for VW

South Korea said Thursday it fined Volkswagen $12.3 million and ordered recalls of 125,522 diesel vehicles after the government found their emissions tests were rigged.

Hong Dong Gon, a director at the Ministry of Environment, said in a live television broadcast that the ministry will continue investigating 30,000 other Volkswagen diesel cars for which it did not find evidence of emissions cheating.

South Korea's government launched investigations last month after the German automaker admitted that it rigged U.S. tests so it would appear that its diesel-powered cars were emitting fewer nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to ozone buildup and respiratory illness.

The global scope of the scandal has put Volkswagen under intense financial pressure. The automaker said last week it will cut spending by 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) next year. It has already set aside 6.7 billion euros ($7.4 billion) to cover the costs of recalling vehicles but experts say the total cost including fines could be much more.

The South Korean ministry found that emissions from Tiguan diesel vehicles using EA189 engines breached standards when the car was not under the usual test conditions, such as when the air conditioner was on or when the car accelerated.

Volkswagen was ordered to recall 125,522 diesel vehicles equipped with the same EA189 engines sold in South Korea between 2008 and 2015. The recall covers 15 models, including the Tiguan, which was the top-selling imported car in South Korea last year.

The ministry will continue investigating other cars using more recent EA288 engines that say they meet emissions standards known as "Euro-5" and "Euro-6." They are Golf, Beetle, Jetta and Audi A3 diesel cars.

Volkswagen said it respects the investigation results.

"We will take necessary measures based on legal procedures and requirements under the relevant laws and regulations," it said in a statement.

The ministry will also expand the investigation into other auto brands. It said it will announce the result in April after probing emissions levels in diesel cars sold by five local auto companies and 11 imported brands.

Bad news for rhinos

A South African judge on Thursday struck down a government ban on the domestic trade in the horns of rhinos, alarming some conservationists who say the decision could intensify the slaughter of the threatened species.

Judge Francis Legodi said the South African government had failed to properly consult the public before imposing the moratorium in 2009 and also questioned its effectiveness, noting that rhino poaching surged to record levels after the ban.

"What disastrous implications would be brought about by the immediate lifting of the moratorium? I cannot think of any," Legodi said in a 39-page ruling in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. He cited statistics showing the number of rhinos poached in 2008, before the ban, was just below 100, compared to about 1,200 last year.

South Africa's environment ministry, which could appeal, did not immediately comment.

Rhino breeders and game reserve owners took the South African government to court to try to overturn the ban, maintaining that harvesting the horn from living rhinos at their ranches and selling it legally will drive many poachers out of business.

Allison Thomson, founder of an anti-poaching group in South Africa, said she was bitterly disappointed by the ruling.

"South Africa does not have a market for rhino horn domestically and the opening of trade locally will only lead to the smuggling of rhino horn by criminal syndicates into the black market in Vietnam and China," Thomson wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

An international ban on the rhino horn trade has been in place since 1977. South Africa has proposed that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which oversees the trade of wild animals and plants, discuss lifting the ban at its next meeting in Johannesburg in September 2016.

No guarantees for oilpatch

Canada's new natural resources minister met with his Alberta counterpart and oil industry executives in Calgary on Wednesday, but gave them little to cheer about.

"Canadians elected a new government and they expect a new approach," said James Carr to executives attending the Canadian Energy Person of the Year Awards.

"There may have been a time when people thought we had to choose between energy development or environmental stewardship. Today, we know environment responsibility is a necessary condition for energy development," he added.

Carr praised the NDP government of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley for its ambitious policy to reduce carbon.

Alberta will introduce a broad-based carbon tax that would apply across the economy. The government will move to phase out the province's coal-fired power generation by 2030.

The province will also introduce a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions for the oilsands.

"The prospect just the other day of an NDP premier, standing side-by-side with leaders of the sector and the NGO community all at the same time was truly an historic moment and shows that the willingness to collaborate is what's going to be essential as we move forward. Alberta has already demonstrated its strong leadership," Carr said.

He met with about 20 oil executives as well as Alberta Natural Resources Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd earlier in the day.

Carr repeated earlier comments that reviews of major energy projects such as pipelines will go through a "transition phase" while public confidence in the process is restored.

He told reporters that the transition process is being worked out and it's still too early to say how long a project could be delayed other than it wouldn't be forced to go "back to square one".

Although Carr said getting energy resources to market is a priority, there is no guarantee that any of the pipelines transporting oil to tidewater will be completed.

"We're not in the business of issuing guarantees. We're in the business of ensuring fair processes, and that's what we intend to do."

Carr said he wasn't meeting with members of the energy sector to boost their spirits.

"The message is that we're starting a new government at a critical time in the history of the energy sector in Canada, that we are committed to the dual ambitions of the economic growth and sustainable environmental practices and that's the way we look at the future unfolding."

Carr said he has sympathy for the thousands of Canadians who have lost their jobs and are enduring "hardship" in the oil and gas sector but said the only solution to a more prosperous future will be through investments into new technologies and innovation.

Pipeline reports go online

The National Energy Board is making more information about the safety of pipelines it regulates available to the public.

Starting immediately, inspection reports are going to be posted on the regulator's website.

Chris Loewen, vice-president of operations at the board, says the watchdog does about 150 of those inspections a year.

At one time, the NEB was a low-profile agency but it's been registering much higher on the public's radar in recent years amid controversy over new energy developments.

Loewen says a big consideration has been making sure the reports aren't too dense and technical for the general public, so it's been training inspectors in the field to write them in an accessible manner.

He says the companies regulated by the NEB have been brought up to speed with the plans, but it's hard to say how enthusiastic they are about it.

The reports will be posted online within six weeks of an inspection taking place. They will include detailed findings, outcomes and any enforcement action.

The chair of the NEB, Peter Watson, did a cross-country tour earlier this year with the aim of understanding Canadians' concerns and demystifying the regulator's work.

Loewen said based on those discussions, he suspects there's a big public appetite for the inspection information.

"It's all about doing the right thing," he said in an interview.

"Frankly, it's in the public interest and it's the kind of information that Canadians are really interested in and that they deserve."

Loewen said the move is part of a wider effort to "modernize" the NEB and make it more transparent.

The NEB oversees 2,117 energy facilities and 73,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada, which transported 1.27 billion barrels of petroleum products last year.

$750/pill price drop reneged

After weeks of criticism from patients, doctors and even other drugmakers for hiking a life-saving medicine's price more than fifty-fold, Turing Pharmaceuticals is reneging on its pledge to cut the $750-per-pill price.

Instead, the small biotech company says it's reducing the price for hospitals by up to 50 per cent for its Daraprim, which treats a rare parasitic infection that mainly strikes pregnant women and HIV patients.

The 62-year-old drug had no competition until a furor over the gigantic price hike erupted, triggering multiple government investigations.

Then a pharmacy that compounds prescription drugs for individual patients stepped in and started selling a capsule version for 99 cents. Imprimis Pharmaceuticals says orders are pouring in from doctors and it says it has dispensed more than 2,500 capsules in barely a month.

Mining collaboration pact

Alaska and British Columbia have reached an agreement that promises to protect shared environments and collaborate on proposed mining projects that have raised concerns on both sides of the border.

Premier Christy Clark and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed the deal that formalizes commitments to protect transboundary rivers, watersheds and fisheries.

The agreement comes after ongoing protests from U.S. politicians and aboriginal and environmental groups over B.C.'s aspirations to develop mines bordering Alaska or near waterways that support the state's fishery.

Alaska's lieutenant-governor made an extraordinary trip to B.C. last May to visit the site of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond disaster in an effort to ensure his state would not be damaged by a similar catastrophe.

Aboriginal leaders from B.C. and Alaska attended a shareholders meeting last June to protest plans by Seabridge Gold (TSX:SEA) to develop a large open pit mine near the B.C.-Alaska border.

B.C.'s Energy Minister Bill Bennett has made two trips to Alaska in the past year meeting with political, industry and aboriginal officials in an effort to alleviate concerns over B.C.'s mining industry and environmental regulations.

Big biz parties on the outs

The era of the big-ticket corporate holiday bash appears to be on life support in Calgary.

"We produce events across North America and everywhere else we're fine, but in Calgary we're down 80 per cent," said David Howard, president of The Event Group, a party planning company in the city.

In the past, Howard said, he's organized extravagant events in the city that cost upwards of a million dollars. But energy companies have since returned to reality and are spending far less — both because of budget constraints and public perceptions.

This year, they're cutting back even further — or cancelling parties altogether — as layoffs and low oil prices continue to hammer the industry.

"We've chatted with a lot of our clients and advised them on holding back this year," Howard said. "You have a lot of oil-and-gas companies that went through a ton of layoffs, their stock prices dropped, so it really isn't the best time right now to be doing an event."

Suncor Energy says it's not hosting a large employee party this year but will still have regional family events, while Cenovus Energy says it's cancelled its corporate Christmas bash entirely.

"We've reduced all of our discretionary spending in light of the current economic climate, so we are not holding a corporate Christmas party this year," said Cenovus spokesman Brett Harris.

Power utility Enmax has also cut its official party out of respect for customers facing tough economic times, said spokeswoman Doris Kaufmann Woodcock. The company is instead encouraging its managers to consider low-cost options like potlucks.

Some companies, however, had actually ditched the fancy company-funded holiday party well before the downturn.

Both Husky Energy and Enbridge are going ahead with their usual employee-funded parties this year, while TransCanada hasn't had a large-scale Christmas party in recent years and instead leaves it up to small units within the company to decide how to celebrate.

Pam McCarthy at Five Star Events says that even with the cutbacks, it's important that companies go ahead with some sort of event.

"If they don't do it, even in some small way, then that's not good for morale," McCarthy said.

"So instead of a massive dinner dance with a band, they might be doing something more low-key, whether it's a luncheon or an after-work at a pub. Very few companies are cancelling their event altogether, they're just doing it on a smaller scale."

Paddy Sorrenti of Sorrenti's Catering says that he's experiencing cancellations and a lot of downsizing of oil-and-gas Christmas parties, but outside of the sector, business is still looking good.

"We have a lot of non oil-and-gas clientele, and most of them are still full-tilt with their parties, but they've never, ever been super-extravagant," said Sorrenti.

And while Calgary's oil-and-gas industry may be cutting back, some companies in the city are still throwing big parties.

Heather Lundy, director of marketing and communications for the Telus Convention Centre, says she's seen only about a 15 per cent drop in Christmas party bookings, and the companies returning this year haven't cut their attendance numbers or their budgets.

Nazi themed ads pulled

An ad campaign that featured Nazi imagery has been pulled from the New York City subway system.

Seats on the 42nd Street shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal were wrapped in Nazi regalia to promote an Amazon video series called "The Man in the High Castle." The show depicts the aftermath of World War II as if the Axis powers triumphed.

The region's transit network, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, approved the ads, which first appeared earlier this month.

The agency also initially defended the ads, saying they met its guidelines.

But many public officials condemned them. Mayor Bill de Blasio called them "irresponsible and offensive."

Officials confirmed Wednesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered them removed.

Toyota recalls vehicles

Toyota Motor Corp. is recalling 1.6 million vehicles for defective air bags supplied by embattled Japanese manufacturer Takata Corp.

The recall includes 22 models sold in Japan, including the Corolla and Vitz, manufactured from January 2004 through December 2005, as well as vehicles in Italy, Britain and Spain, although those numbers were still unclear. It doesn't include any vehicles in the U.S.

Takata inflators can explode with too much force, sending out shrapnel. At least eight people have been killed worldwide and hundreds injured.

The problem has led to the recall of 19.2 million vehicles in the U.S., and government regulators are investigating. Millions more may be recalled.

No injuries were reported in Toyota vehicles related to the latest defect, which affects the passenger seat air bag, but a person in a Nissan Motor Co. car was injured recently in Japan.

Toyota has announced nearly 15 million recalls in relation to problem Takata inflators worldwide, nearly 3 million each in the U.S. and Japan, spokeswoman Kayo Doi said.

Earlier this month, U.S. auto safety regulators fined Takata $70 million for concealing evidence for years that its air bags are prone to explode.

Under a five-year pact, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can increase the penalty to a record $200 million if the company fails to abide by the terms.

Toyota, Ford Motor Co. of the U.S., Japanese automakers Honda Motor Co. and Nissan have decided not to use Takata inflators in vehicles under development.

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