EPA Approves Invasive Species For Biofuel Production

What is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thinking? Although the GOP incessantly tries to stop the EPA from over-regulating, the environmental community believes it often doesn’t regulate well enough.

By approving mass plantings of two invasive species to be harvested for biofuels, the EPA is opening a ‘Pandora’s box’, experts warn.

The agency has ruled that biofuels made from Arundo donax (known as Giant Reed) and Pennisetum purpureum (Napier Grass) meet the 60% greenhouse gas emissions reductions threshold to qualify as second generation, cellulosic biofuels under its Renewable Fuel Standard.

This rule, first proposed early last year, has been publicly opposed by more than 100 state, local, and national groups, says the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). 

“By allowing producers to grow these two invasive plants for biofuel production, the EPA is recklessly opening a Pandora’s box,” says Aviva Glaser, legislative representative for agriculture policy at NWF. “We want to move forward with homegrown sources of renewable energy, but by doing so, we don’t want to fuel the next invasive species catastrophe.”

Originally from India and introduced in the US for erosion control, Arundo donax is listed as one of the world’s 100 most invasive species. It is almost impossible to control and is quickly spreading across Texas and the southern US – sure, let’s plant some more – LOTS more!

Giant Reed Invasive

It chokes out native plants and ecosystems, clogs rivers and wetlands, but it is exactly those characteristics that make it tempting to use for biofuels – rapid growth, competitiveness and tolerance of a wide range of climate conditions.

Texas forbids planting Giant Reed in the state. It grows as high as 30 feet and forms dense stands which consume huge amounts of water. It’s blocking the flow of the Nueces River in Texas and last year volunteers spent almost three months hand-pulling sprouts along a 30-mile stretch. California is also battling the plant at costs between $5,000 to $25,000 an acre.

In its rule, the EPA admits that the crops are invasive, and it imposes additional requirements on registration, reporting and record keeping for the plants. "These additional requirements are necessary to minimize the potential that the feedstock will spread to areas outside the intended planting area." 

"Assuming that best management practices will prevent the escape of highly invasive weeds grown on a large scale is naïve, risky, and dangerous. We’ve seen time and time again with invasive species that good intentions can result in expensive unintended consequences," warns Glaser. 

"You can make money and a help native wildlife by growing native plants for bioenergy," says Steve Flick, board chair of the Show Me Energy Cooperative. "Missouri farmers are doing this right now as part of the Show Me Energy Cooperative, and it’s a model that can work throughout the country."

Rather than planting invasive species, why not clear out the ones we already have and use that for bioenergy? They are already swallowing just about every ecosystem we have.

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Comments on “EPA Approves Invasive Species For Biofuel Production”

  1. Jason

    Why was my comment deleted? It was thoughtful and relevant. I’ll assume it was an accident and repost it.

    Arundo donax is very mildly invasive because it’s a sterile plant that only reproduces clonaly–so it doesn’t spread well. It’s only an invasive problem in places (CA and TX) where it was deliberately planted to reduce erosion of wetlands in order to build suburbs. Arundo has been grown as an ornamental in the US for hundreds of years (originally brought by Spanish settlers) and hasn’t become an invasive problem, except in the few places I mentioned. If you keep it away from open water it simply doesn’t spread. Good management plans should be able to prevent biofuel production of Arundo from being a problem.

    But there are also a number of reasons why Arundo is a great, sustainable option for bioenergy: it is extremely productive (so it’s physical footprint is much smaller than other energy crops, leaving more land for food production or wilderness) it has very low fertilizer and water requirements, insects don’t eat it (so no pesticide use) and it’s a perennial so you don’t need to annually plow fields and replant=less erosion and emissions from Ag. equipment.

    I would think that Sustainable Business would be elated that it’s been approved for bioenergy use?

    And yes, using current invasive species for bioenergy is a great idea, the problem is that in most cases it’s not cost effective–it takes so much biomass to run a power plant (a medium sized plant needs hundreds of tons every hour) so the cost of trucking all the material in alone is huge (not to mention the carbon emissions from all those trucks). Growing a crop like Arundo near the power plant is far more environmentally sustainable and cost effective. Several large-scale projects to use Arundo for energy are in progress, and they will replace coal as a fuel source. In my opinion this is great progress toward sustainability!

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  2. Rona Fried

    Jason, thanks for your thoughtful comment and for providing the other side of this story. Since I am not familiar with these 2 plants and their habits, I can’t comment on your perspective, but the fact that hundreds of experts believe this is a big mistake is good enough for me. The takeover of invasive plants is an enormous problem – I am intimately familiar with a handful of them, pulling them out in our parks. It would great if a mobile unit could be developed that would be make it cost-effective to remove the invasives that are already harming ecosystems from coast to coast.

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  3. Jason

    Rona,

    Thanks to you as well for being thoughtful. You are correct that many people did oppose the use of these plants–but what this article fails to mention is that an even greater number supported their use–including hundreds of scientists at the EPA. If the only concern is invasive species risk, then yes, it would probably make sense to oppose Arundo (I don’t really know anything about Napier grass, so I’m not discussing it) but if you are concerned about things like global warming, particulate emissions from burning coal, pesticide use, artificial fertilizers, fresh water supplies…the case for Arundo is much stronger.

    And really, the new EPA rule is not “allowing” Arundo to be grown, it’s already all over the place. The new rule simply makes it eligible for subsidies and tax credits. There were already several large-scale bioenergy programs going forward using Arundo before this rule was approved, so the cat was already out of the bag, so to speak.

    I live in Oregon and the state’s largest utility, PGE, is moving forward with a plan to convert the state’s only coal power plant to biofuel using Arundo donax. If this project happens, it will single handedly reduce net CO2 emissions in our state by 7%. That’s a huge improvement.

    Another thing PGE has discussed is putting a “bounty” on any invasive biomass (basically a per ton price) to augment their fuel supply. This would be awesome, and I think it could have a huge effect on invasives in the region. But it’s also a really uncertain fuel source (especially if it’s successful and all the “low hanging fruit” invasives are harvested in a few years). I’m fairly sure PGE wouldn’t commit to converting their plant to biofuel without the certainty provided by a local, reliable biofuel crop.

    Reply
  4. Emiliano

    Absolutely 100% agreed what Jason said.

    A good management is required to avoid some negative issues, but as many other alternatives Arundo donax is a great potential bioenergy crop.

    Cereal monoculture, erosion for excessive ploughing and dangerous pesticides are also a danger. But we cultivate those crops. Tomatoes and maize are exotic everywhere except in their places of origin. And we cultivate them. Legislations need to be considered in anything we do. That’s the only way.

    http://www.bioenergycrops.com

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