Engineered crops likely pose only minor risks — DOE 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Specially engineered biofuels crops may pose some environmental impacts, including increased risk of invasiveness, but most concerns can be alleviated by best management practices, according to a draft environmental review by the Department of Energy.

The draft programmatic environmental impact statement examined potential future funding through DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) for the creation of new crops engineered to improve biofuels production.

Along with raising concerns about invasiveness, the impact statement also found that some species of “engineered high energy crops” may pose increased wildfire risks. But in most cases, DOE found ways to mitigate negative effects. In certain cases, the introduction of engineered biofuels crops could yield environmental benefits, DOE said.

“The potential for environmental impacts varies by EHEC species, the modifications to the EHECs, field trial location, and the size of the field trial,” the review concluded. “However, the development of EHECs may have potential benefits once EHECs are commercially viable (after completion of the field trials); such benefits may include decreased greenhouse gas emissions due to the reduced need for and use of fossil fuels as an energy source.”

DOE made the draft impact statement available Friday and will accept public comments for 60 days.

The review encompassed the creation and testing of crops containing genetic material that has been introduced through biotechnology or other engineering processes. The addition of new genetic material could act in a number of ways to improve biofuels production, including increasing photosynthesis, improving crop yield and adding molecules found in petroleum-based fuels.

The review examined the environmental impacts of field trials of newly engineered crops in the Southeast in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. DOE examined confined field trials of up to 5 acres, 250 acres and 15,000 acres; the largest field trial would provide enough energy crops for a small-scale commercial ethanol plant.

According to the review, the potential for invasiveness is a concern for field trials of up to 250 and 15,000 acres. But detrimental impacts caused by increases in invasiveness are likely to be relatively minor and could be mitigated by certain best management practices, DOE said.

“Invasiveness was a concern (area of controversy) discussed at the scoping meetings” for the review, DOE said. “Agencies and interested groups expressed concern that engineered crops may increase the risk of invasiveness and recommended that rigorous screening protocols and monitoring, mitigation, and eradication protocols be established for all field trials to manage potential risk.”

At a minimum, projects involving engineered biofuels crops would have to follow permit requirements set by the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, DOE said.

DOE also found that planting woody crops that have been engineered to have increased terpene — a strong-smelling aromatic hydrocarbon — could result in an increased risk of wildfires. The impact from larger field trials could be major or long term, DOE said.

“However, it is not clear that genetically modifying a woody crop could present a greater fire hazard than existing pine plantations commonly found in the Southeastern United States,” DOE said.

The department also said the risk could be mitigated through a variety of best management practices.

In general, perennial nontree plants “would have the smallest potential for environmental impacts” and may result in potential benefits, the review said. Planting engineered perennial biofuels crops, for example, would decrease fertilizer and pesticide use compared with corn production, thereby leading to less nutrient runoff into local waterways.

Along with cataloging potential environmental impacts, DOE emphasized the need for funding federal field trials.

“In the absence of DOE funding and support for EHEC programs,” the department said, “scientific understanding and innovation in the responsible use of EHECs and, ultimately, commercial deployment of EHECs would develop more slowly or not at all.”