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Know the West

Southern Utes discover a new kind of crude



The Southern Utes mean business. Their investment company, the Southern Ute Growth Fund, manages more than $1 billion in assets, including a set of real estate development companies and an oil and gas drilling business. Just this week, they opened a new high-end casino on their reservation south of Durango, Colorado. 

But the Utes are now trying to put their Midas touch to work in a less conventional line of business: producing biofuels from algae. The idea is to grow algae that synthesize a lot of fat -- as opposed to more normal strains of algae that synthesize a lot of protein and starch -- in giant tanks, then refine that fat into usable fuel, much as soybean and other vegetable oils are refined into biodiesel.

The process is in some ways just a speeding-up of the natural process through which the earth's oil and gas reserves were formed in the first place. It's a process that could theoretically produce a carbon-neutral fuel, since all carbon released when the fuel is burned would have been taken from the atmosphere by the growing algae. In its current incarnation, though, the process requires the injection of carbon dioxide from an outside source -- in this case natural gas wells -- in order to make the algae grow more quickly. This requirement probably negates most of the fuel's climate benefits.

The Utes are going to start with a five-acre algae plot. That may not sound like much, but an algae farm can produce something on the order of 3,000 gallons of fuel per acre, which is pretty impressive when compared to the alternative, a soy farm, which can produce 50-70 gallons per acre. And algae farms may be particularly suited to the Southwest, given that they require a lot of sunlight and can use brackish or otherwise contaminated water that couldn't be used for drinking or irrigating conventional crops. At any rate, they would certainly make for interesting tourist attractions. "Welcome to the Four Corners," the signs could say. "Have you seen our slime?"