Scientists question EPA’s plans for grasses for biofuels

Nov 2, 2012
by DTN

A major weakness in the U.S. policy for biofuels has been the failure to develop commercial processes to produce fuel from cellulosic feedstocks, given the assumption promoted by the last several administrations that huge quantities of fuel could be produced efficiently from feedstocks “that do not compete with food production.” The failure on that score is increasingly seen as a threat to the policy overall.

This has not been for want of trying. USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have invested heavily in the development of the necessary chemistry to convert plant fiber to fuel, and in the identification and promotion of non-food crops for that purpose. Now, however, they have encountered some pushback from scientists raising significant concerns about the potential environmental threats from such crops.

For example, EPA has a number of plants under consideration as feedstock sources including Napier grass and Arundo donax, also known as giant reed because it can grow 30 feet tall. That possibility is unsettling to some who work with grasses and weeds, and last week, more than 200 scientists wrote to say that it would be a mistake not to carefully evaluate the potential for some of the grasses to overtake native plants and, in doing so, destroy wildlife habitat. The group notes that California, Colorado, Nevada and Texas already have giant reed, a native plant of India, on their noxious-weed lists. Alabama, New Mexico and South Carolina either list it as invasive or at high risk for invasiveness.

They suggest that this is not a new problem and that in the past the government has allowed or promoted invasive plants such as the kudzu vine in the South to quickly spread and overtake ecosystems. Many of the signers are members of the Ecological Society of America, Weed Science Society of America and The Wildlife Society’s Invasive Species Working Group.

“It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe—particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars,” the signers of the letter said.

Aviva Glaser, agriculture policy coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said individuals and groups submitted comments this year when EPA released a proposed rule that included Arundo donax and Napier grass, also known as elephant grass, as potentially acceptable feedstock for biofuel production.

Glaser said opponents of the proposal had met with Office of Management and Budget, the White House agency that reviews proposed regulations.

Glaser told the press that the problem is broader than just a few plant species. It includes the willingness of the administration to move forward on bioenergy policy “without considering the potential for invasives. Our goal is to influence the administration to have a more proactive approach” to comply with a long-standing executive order that requires the federal government to prevent the introduction of invasive species, he said.

However, EPA also is required by law to review possible energy alternatives to corn, the main feedstock for ethanol. Last January, EPA issued a proposed rule that identified camelina oil, a form of sugar cane called energy cane, giant reed and Napier grass as potential new fuel sources that met greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

EPA concluded that energy cane, giant reed and Napier grass had greenhouse gas emissions similar to or lower than those incurred in growing and harvesting switchgrass, a nonfood plant that is considered a top source for the next generation of biofuels.

It has always been considered at least somewhat unlikely that the energy establishment will be able to find feedstocks that have the energy characteristics necessary, are highly productive, and can be grown and collected from land that does not compete with food crops, observers note. And, they say, crops that grow very rapidly and generate very large amounts of biomass might mean reduced competition for land, and likely will continue to be considered as potential sources. However, there is sufficient experience with imported noxious plants to suggest that EPA and US- DA should proceed with caution lest they invite another kudzu with the potential to become yet another regional pest, Washington Insider believes. — DTN