200 scientists warn of invasive risk as EPA weighs new feedstocks

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More than 200 scientists yesterday urged federal officials to take caution in approving new biofuel feedstocks, warning of past situations where potentially invasive plants were introduced with good intentions only to cause widespread destruction later.

Giant reed and napiergrass, two species of grass that U.S. EPA is considering, have many of the same traits as potentially invasive plants, the scientists warned. They recalled the introduction of kudzu, which after its introduction quickly blanketed the South, choking out native species.

“Many of today’s most problematic invasive plants — from kudzu to purple loosestrife — were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation and forestry purposes,” the 208 scientists wrote in a letter. “These invasive species already cost billions of dollars a year in the United States and are one of the primary threats to North America’s native species and ecosystems.”

The letter was sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the heads of the Agriculture, Energy, Defense and Transportation departments. The scientists are from the fields of ecology, wildlife biology, forestry and natural resources.

EPA is expected to soon make a decision on the two grasses, along with energy cane and camelina. The approval of the feedstocks would allow them to be included in the renewable fuel standard, meaning refiners that blend biofuels made from them would be able to receive credits toward their annual obligations.

The agency issued a direct final rule early this year approving all four of the feedstocks but withdrew it after receiving a critical comment from environmental groups (Greenwire, March 5). The agency is now going through the regular order with the rule.

In originally approving the grasses, EPA said it took into account the life cycle emissions reductions from using the grasses and found they met the 60 percent reduction threshold compared to petroleum-based fuel. In their comments, the environmental groups warned of invasive risks associated with the feedstocks.

Giant reed, otherwise known as Arundo donax, is considered a noxious weed in Texas, California, Colorado and Nevada, according to a letter sent earlier this month to the Office of Management and Budget by environmental groups. It is also considered either invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama and South Carolina.

USDA in June concluded that Arundo donax was a high-risk species and called it a “highly invasive grass” and a “serious environmental weed.”

The costs to eradicate giant reed can be as high as $25,000 an acre, according to various estimates.

Napiergrass, also known as elephant grass, is considered a serious risk in Florida, where it has been found in almost all of the state’s 30 counties, according to the University of Florida.

In their letter yesterday, the scientists said the grasses exhibit many of the qualities associated with invasive species, including rapid growth, pest resistance and low input requirements.

They urged EPA to take into account an executive order signed by former President Clinton that prohibits federal agencies from taking any actions to promote the spread of invasive species unless the agency has determined the benefits “clearly outweigh” the costs.

“It is much cheaper and easier to take the steps to prevent an invasive escape than it is to deal with it after it has occurred,” the scientists wrote.