200+ Scientists Call on Obama Administration to “Look Before You Leap” on Potentially Invasive Energy Crops

Reckless EPA rule could result in irreparable ecological damage by promoting invasive species as biofuel source

10-22-2012 // Aislinn Maestas

More than 200 scientists from across the country sent a letter to the Obama administration today urging them to take a “look before you leap” approach to potentially invasive plants grown for bioenergy, warning that some of the crops being considered for large-scale energy plantings may actually be highly invasive and potentially harmful to native species. The letter was sent in response to news that EPA is close to finalizing a rule which would allow fuel made from two known noxious weeds, Arundo donax and napiergrass, to count toward federally-mandated renewable fuels targets.

“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,” states the letter.

The letter was signed by a number of prominent scientists and supported by leading professional societies in the field, including the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA), and The Wildlife Society’s Invasive Species Working Group. 

“ESA supports the wise use and development of alternative energy including growing plants for biofuels,” said Scott Collins, Ph.D., President of the Ecological Society of America. “However, care must be taken to prevent unintended consequences including the use of highly invasive species such as Arundo, which are known to cause multiple problems, such as increasing fire risk and displacing desirable plants and associated wildlife.”

“In the 1930s, the USDA actually paid farmers to plant kudzu for soil erosion control,” said Lee Van Wychen, Ph.D., Science Policy Director of the Weed Science Society of America.  “While their intentions were good, it wasn’t long before kudzu became known as ‘the vine that ate the South.’  We need more research on some of these species before incentivizing their production, otherwise the same mistake will be made.”

The proposed EPA rule would allow two invasive grasses, Arundo donax and napiergrass, to qualify as “advanced biofuel feedstocks” under the Renewable Fuel Standard.  Arundo donax is a non-native species that is a well-known and well-documented invader of natural areas. Currently listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, the plant is incredibly destructive to riparian areas where it is introduced. It has been shown to crowd out native plant species, contribute to higher fire frequency and intensity, and negatively impact certain threatened and endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo. USDA, in their June 2012 weed risk assessment, concluded with very high certainty that Arundo donax is a high risk species, noting that it is a “highly invasive grass” and a “serious environmental weed.”

“It does us no good to create one problem in an attempt to solve another,” said Aviva Glaser, Agriculture Policy Legislative Representative for the National Wildlife Federation. “While bioenergy has the potential to be an important, homegrown source of renewable energy, the last thing we need is a short-sighted policy that will exacerbate our invasive species problem and end up costing us more than it is worth in the long run.”

The letter was signed by 208 scientists from around the country. It comes on the heels of another letter sent to the Office of Management and Budget, signed by more than 100 local, state and national groups opposing the EPA rule.

Download the letter to see the full list of signers, and read our blog post to learn more on this topic.

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