EPA approves feedstocks from 2 invasive plants despite warnings

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 3, 2013

U.S. EPA has finalized a rule that would allow biofuels made from two potentially invasive plants to qualify for the benefits associated with the renewable fuel standard.

The agency has found that biofuels made from the feedstocks — Arundo donax and napiergrass — meet the 60 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions threshold to qualify as cellulosic biofuels. The White House finished reviewing the supplemental final rule Friday, and it will be published soon in the Federal Register; a fact sheet is currently available on the agency’s website.

The rule says producers would be required to comply with measures to reduce the invasive potential of the bioenergy crops, which are considered risks in some parts of the country. Environmental groups have over the past year cautioned the agency on approving the crops, warning that they could become the next kudzu, which quickly blanketed the South and choked out native species after it was introduced as livestock feed.

“In response to comments on the proposal concerning the risk of these crops behaving as invasive species, EPA is adopting additional registration, recordkeeping and reporting requirements to minimize this risk,” the agency said in the fact sheet.

Before allowing planting, EPA will require biofuel producers to show that A. donax and napiergrass are not likely to spread beyond their planting area or to have an EPA-approved plan that will detail how the risks can be minimized. Risk-mitigation plans will include information on early detection and rapid response to the spreading of the plants, best management practices, monitoring requirements, and plans for closing the site. Third parties will annually monitor whether the plan is being properly carried out.

Federal approval of the feedstocks is widely seen as an expansion of the market because it gives refiners incentive to blend the resulting biofuels into petroleum-based fuel.

At least one company, Chemtex International Inc., is considering using A. donax for biofuels production in North Carolina. Chemtex last year received a $99 million loan guarantee from the Agriculture Department for the project. Chemtex and partner Beta Renewables are already using A. donax as a feedstock at a 20-million-gallon-a-year cellulosic ethanol plant that began operating late last year in Italy.

The release of the final action comes more than a year and a half after EPA first issued a direct final rule to allow A. donax and napiergrass to qualify for credit under the renewable fuel standard, which requires refiners to blend ethanol and advanced biofuels into the nation’s motor fuel supply. By issuing a direct final rule, EPA had hoped to expedite the approval process.

The proposal, though, came under fire from conservationists and scientists concerned with the plants’ invasive potential. The plants are being considered for biofuels because they grow quickly, are resistant to pests and require few inputs; those traits, though, are the same ones that characterize the nation’s invasive species.

A. donax, otherwise known as giant reed, is considered a noxious weed in Texas, California, Colorado and Nevada and is considered either invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama and South Carolina. Napiergrass, also known as elephant grass, is considered a serious risk in Florida.

Environmental groups said EPA ignored an executive order that prohibits federal agencies from promoting the introduction and spread of invasive species. After receiving the negative comment, EPA last March withdrew the direct final rule, which also proposed to allow camelina and energy cane to qualify for the renewable fuel standard (Greenwire, March 5, 2012). The agency instead decided to move through the normal rule process.

Earlier this year, EPA re-released a final action allowing camelina and energy cane to qualify for credit but decided to hold off on a decision on A. donax and napiergrass, saying it was still considering the concerns raised over their potential invasiveness (Greenwire, Feb. 25).

Environmentalists say they still have concerns with the final rule.

“By allowing producers to grow these two invasive plants for biofuel production, EPA is recklessly opening a Pandora’s box,” said Aviva Glaser, legislative representative for agriculture policy at the National Wildlife Federation. “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.”

In the absence of EPA action, some states have taken steps to restrict the planting of potentially invasive bioenergy plants. Mississippi last year put in place a permitting system for bioenergy plants; in 2008, Florida adopted a similar procedure.

Several scientists that have been studying the invasive potential of energy crops earlier this year urged federal agencies to spell out who would be liable in the event of an accidental release of the plants. They urged agencies to adopt a system in which commercial developers would be protected from liability if they performed due diligence to guard against the spread of the plants.