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Biofuel crops invade gas tanks, habitat

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Danielle Venton | Apr 05, 2012 06:00 AM

From bindweed to tamarisk, invasive weeds are a scourge of many Western communities; certainly not something anyone wants more of. Yet a clause in newly proposed bill to promote biofuels energy may open up a loophole that would send federal dollars to pay farmers for planting and growing certain highly invasive plants as bioenergy feedstocks.

Giant Reed Grass

It turns out that many of the plants being grown or evaluated for biofuels are nasty, aggressive invasive things, at least for fans of native habitat. Weedy, speedy growing plants are, practically by definition, great potential bioenergy feedstocks.  And they're not all bad: Plant-based combustibles don't require drilling, don't spill catastrophically into the Gulf of Mexico, don't contribute to international conflicts and – so long as we can grow and harvest plants – won't dry up. For those reasons, hope and federal money is being poured, by the truckload, into biofuels.

Yesterday, the National Wildlife Federation released a report warning that many crops grown or being considered for biofuels come with a high risk of escaping crop fields, invading and damaging habitat. Currently, the Farm Bill-funded Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) provides money for farmers seeking to establish biofuel crops. Under current law, invasive or potentially invasive crops are excluded from this program. But according to Aviva Glaser, the legislative representative for agriculture policy at National Wildlife Federation, a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), would remove that clause, promoting the cultivation, and potential escapes, of invasive and genetically modified bioenergy feedstocks.

"The optimal crops are fast growing and resistant to pests," said Glaser during a teleconference on the report. "Should invasive bioenergy feedstocks escape and establish in native habitats, it could devastate ecosystems."

The report, Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks [pdf], examines six potential invader crops. Giant reed (Arundo donax), for example, is perennial grass native to India. It's large and fast growing: reaching heights between nine and 30 feet and can spread through rhizomes underground or through stem fragments. Fragments can even float downstream during storms and grow where they come to rest. Within two years of a first planning, an estimated 20 tons of biomass could come from a single acre of Arundo. While it may have grand energy potential, it is already listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's worst weeds and is listed as noxious in Texas, California, Colorado and Nevada.

In Oregon, the Boardman Power Plant is growing about 100 acres of giant reed as part of a pilot project. The town of Boardman is located on the Columbia River, which could provide a pathway for the grass to invade far and wide. Cost estimates for eradicating giant reed from a single acre range as high as $25,000.

While the NWF remains in favor of bioenergy, they warn of missing the opportunity to prevent widespread ecological damage.

"We truly have the chance to get ahead of the risk," said Patty Glick, National Wildlife Federation senior climate change specialist. "We need to focus on prevention. Most of state and federal efforts to control invasive species have been largely piecemeal and reactionary."

The report recommends "vigorous screening" of candidate crops to evaluate their invasive potential and suggests that feedstock producers themselves bear the cost of monitoring and controlling escapees. This, Glick suggests, will encourage companies to use plants that are unlikely to cause habitat damage.

Some farmers, at least, see just as much potential for bioenergy in low-risk native plants.

"You can make money and a help native wildlife by growing native plants for bioenergy," said Steve Flick, chairman of the board for the Show Me Energy Cooperative in a NWF press release. "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."

Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News. 

Photo of giant reed grass courtesy of Flickr user James Gaither.

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