Scientists Warn Against Using Invasive Species as Biofuels

Published November 28, 2012

Government officials promoting the use of bioenergy feedstocks should be very careful not to unleash a new wave of invasive species on U.S. soil, more than 200 scientists warn in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and four other top Obama administration officials.

Energy Benefits, Environment Harms

“Studies have shown that some of the plants considered most promising in terms of bioenergy capacity may actually be highly invasive and potentially harmful to native species and ecosystems,” the scientists write. “In fact, many of the characteristics that make a plant appealing as an ideal source of biomass … are the same characteristics that make a plant more likely to become invasive.”

Unintended Consequences

Many of our most problematic invasive species were intentionally introduced in the United States but then caused more harm than good, the scientists note in their letter.

“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. 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. It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe—particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars,” the scientists warn.

EPA Action Feared

The scientists are particularly concerned about a proposed EPA rule that would designate two invasive grasses, Arundo donax (giant reed) and Pennisetum purpureum (elephant grass), as advanced biofuel feedstock under the federal renewable fuel standard. 

Pennisetum purpureum is an African grass that thrives in warm climates, multiplies rapidly, and crowds out other vegetation.  

Arundo donax, native to India, is already a feared invasive plant well beyond the subcontinent. California, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas, classify Arundo donax as a noxious weed.  

Incentivizing Danger

“These two species are already harmful invaders in parts of the United States and should not be incentivized for biofuel use,” said Doria Gordon, director of conservation for Nature Conservancy Florida. “Both species can become so dominant that they crowd out native species and alter habitats.” 

Gordon, who is one of the scientists who signed the letter, reported alternative grass species posing low risk for invasion are better alternatives. She identified sugarcane, sweet sorghum, and sterile giant miscanthus as examples.

Gordon said invasive species already cost the United States economy $35 billion per year. 

“The public will save money in the long run if harmful invaders are not incentivized,” she explained. 

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.

Internet Info:

Letter to federal officials on bioenergy feedstocks,