Protecting The Gasoline Tree – OpEd


There is a tree in the Philippines that can do in five years what millions of years have taken – that is to produce petroleum.

The tree, known as petroleum nut (Pittosporum resineferum), is endemic in the northern Philippines.

I am mass-rearing it with my group Cordillera Ecological Center known as PINE TREE.

The tree is the country’s most promising biofuel treasure.

It has an octane rating of 54 which is higher than that of Jatropha curcas which has only 41. It can totally replace liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking and lighting and it can run engines.

PINE TREE has already produced thousands of seedlings and is training farmers how to plant the trees. The treee does not displace people, especially indigenous peoples, nor does it threaten food security as it is best planted in the natural forests. Furthermore, it helps reduce global warming because it is a very good carbon sink.

The tree means a lot as it can provide sustainable rural energy and lessens tree-cutting for firewood use.

The tree produces inedible fruits that are heptane, e-pinene and dihydroterpene-rich. The oil comes from the fruit, not the seeds, and is highly flammable.

The Philippines, one of the most critical “bio-hotspots” in the world, is losing its natural richness not only by natural habitat destruction but also by biopirates.

Tree to reduce global warming

In a press conference PINE TREE told journalists that they are also training local peoples to plant petroleum nut and and engage in carbon deals.

PINE TREE has planted seedlings of three endemic petroleum nut varieties from different germplasms that are in its seedbanks. These trees will be planted in communal forests to ensure the continuous existence of the tree for years to come.

PINE TREE has set up nurseries and is propagating thousands of petroleum nut seeds and cuttings from four endemic varieties. These trees will be planted in ancestral forests of the indigenous peoples to ensure the continuous existence of the tree for years to come. It is bared to the journalists who watched a demonstration of how the oil was extracted and was used to cook.

The flame from petroleum nut oil is clear blue, has no odor unlike kerosene and smells with exuding aroma.

The work of PINE TREE on the petroleum nut was supported by the Toyota Environmental Award that it won for its project to protect biodiversity while promoting technology for the rural poor.

The award is now being used to preserve, protect, conserve and mass-produce petroleum nut, not merely because of its oil potential but also as a carbon sink.

The project also won the Ford Motors EnvironmentAward funds for the research work.

Stressing that those to benefit first and directly from the project should be the indigenous peoples, PINE TREE staff is training local villagers to plant, care for, manage and extract the oil from the tree. The oil will be used for cooking, lighting, heating, running small machines (like water pumps and grinders) and drying.

PINE TREE says conservation of the tree is critical as it is only found in some four to five provinces.

Dobbels Wallang, project assistant of PINE TREE said: “Our project trains local peoples to plant petroleum nut and lets them engage in carbon deals. By this, the project helps reduce global warming, it lessens pressure on forests, which are usually cut for fuel wood and the local peoples have a sustainable source of income.”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, pollution-emitting companies can be taxed higher, fined, or closed. But if these companies are able to finance reforestation and afforestation projects in developing countries that absorb the carbon dioxide they emit, they are allowed to operate because of their corporate responsibility to reduce global warming and to promote countryside development.

Carbon trading deals involving tree planting in developing countries will provide greater benefits than just improving the environment. They could sharply reduce poverty among the rural poor and provide businesses with an inexpensive way to offset their carbon emissions.

Fuel potential

By chemical analysis, petroleum nut is better than India’s Jatropha curcas. According to Joseph Gonsalves, consultant of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and author of “An Assessment of the Biofuels Industry in India” published in 2006, Jatropha has a low octane rating of 43. Octane is a hydrocarbon found in petroleum.

The octane rating is how much the fuel can be compressed before it spontaneously ignites.

Chemist Sheryl Lontoc of the Chemistry Department of De La Salle University (DLSU), who assisted PINE TREE, said that the chemical analysis of petroleum nut reveals that it has an octane rating of 54. According to Lontoc, this means the fuel from the tree has a higher potential of running engines, and by all indications, petroleum nut is far better than Jatropha curcas. Fossil fuel has an octane rating of 91.

The analysis determined that petroleum-nut oil contains 46 percent of gasoline-type components such as heptane and dihydroterpene.

A single tree can yields 250 kilograms. Fifteen kilograms of fresh fruits can yield one liter of pure oil. The residue, ground up and distilled with steam, can yield 73cm3 more. Planting the petroleum nut trees would yield 45 tons of fruit or 2,500 gallons of petroleum oil per acre per year.

Earlier studies done by Dr. Pamela Fernandez of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos indicate that a single fruit yields 0.1 to 3.3 ml of oil, averaging about 1.3 ml. In general, the bigger the fruit, the larger the seed and the greater the oil content.

The Petroleum nut fruit has many traditional uses. These include its use as a cure for many conditions (such as skin diseases, common colds, and muscle pains) and to ease stomach pain.

In the Benguet province, the tree is called apisang, abkol, abkel, and langis in the vernacular. It thrives in Mt. Pulis, Ifugao, and in the headwaters of the Agno and Chico River Basins. It is also found in the Bicol provinces, Palawan, Mindoro, Nueva Ecija and Laguna.

Conservation critical

PINE TREE says conservation of the tree is critical as it is only found in some four to five provinces. “It is difficult to find the tree nowadays,” said Delmar Litilit, the environmental officer of PINE TREE. “If one does, there are often just a few trees in a small forest fragment,” he added.

In 2006, China told CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) that the species of petroleum nut it has should be placed on the protected species list because it is rapidly disappearing. PINE TREE believes the Philippine government should do the same sooner rather than later, the tree may go the way of the Dodo.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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