DOE to study environmental impacts of engineered energy crops

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Department of Energy is starting to review crops proposed for advanced biofuel feedstocks with an eye toward assessing their invasiveness, greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts.

DOE will hold public meetings this week on the scope of the planned environmental impact statement. The EIS, the department says, will guide programs aimed at spurring the large-scale development of next-generation biofuels.

DOE’s Plants Engineered to Reduce Oil (PETRO) Program, run by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), will lead reviews of “engineered high energy crops,” or biofuel feedstocks created through genetic engineering, interspecific hybridization, or other processes to produce large quantities of energy per acre.

In the Southeast, such crops include pine trees, tobacco, sugar cane and sorghum. DOE is focusing its efforts on biofuels that can be introduced into existing energy infrastructure.

Programs would aim to deploy bioenergy crops, DOE says, that “produce fuel molecules that require little or no processing prior to being introduced into existing energy infrastructure, thus enabling agriculturally derived fuels that are cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

DOE published a notice of intent to conduct the reviews late last month and will hold three public meetings this week in Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina. While the department is still accepting public comments on the scope of the reviews, DOE says it will examine several potential environmental impacts of conducting field trials of engineered energy crops in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Among the impacts to be studied are the effects of introducing the crops on native vegetation and wildlife, on local water supplies, on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and on rural economies. DOE will also study how the planting of crops affects land use in the Southeastern states.

The environmental review will guide confined field trials of engineered energy crops that range from 5 acres to 15,000 acres. DOE chose the Southeast because of its short, mild winters and its six-month growing season — factors that are favorable for growing energy crops.

Through the program, the department would fund research institutions, independent contract growers and commercial entities for the trials.

Funding recipients would need to obtain permission from the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and comply with Food and Drug Administration and U.S. EPA requirements for transgenic plants.

U.S. EPA last week said it would address the potential invasiveness of two biofuel crops — Arundo donax and Napier grass — by requiring producers to put in place and comply with a risk mitigation plan (Greenwire, July 2).

The final rule is under fire from environmentalists who warn the plants could become invasive because they grow quickly, are resistant to pests and require few inputs.