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Giant Reed a giant mess waiting to happen

Posted Oct. 5, 2012 / Posted by: Michal Rosenoer

When Congress established the Renewable Fuel Standard –our federal biofuels mandate – they probably weren’t hoping to incentivize invasive species, choke rivers, or increase wildfires. But, if the EPA approves giant reed (Arundo donax) as a so-called “advanced” biofuel that’s exactly what will happen. EPA will likely make a determination about giant reed in the next couple of weeks.

The EPA is currently in the final stages of approving giant reed for use under the RFS despite the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture recently called it a “serious environmental weed” and at least 8 states have listed it as a “noxious weed” due to its serious invasive qualities. Moreover, the California Invasive Plant Council concluded that controlling and eradicating the weed could cost states hundreds of millions of dollars. Invasive species already cost taxpayers over $120 billion in damages every year. For these reasons, over 100 groups including Friends of the Earth sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget today opposing the approval of giant reed as an advanced biofuel feedstock.

Giant reed is a fast-growing grass native to India that can grow up to 30 feet tall. Because of its rapid growth rate and ability to multiply quickly, there’s a lot of interest in using it to produce biofuels. Companies in Oregon, Florida, and North Carolina have already started planting it for this purpose. Unfortunately, it’s these very same characteristics that landed giant reed on the World Conservation Union’s list of the world’s worst 100 invasive species.

Giant reed is a really thirsty plant—it uses a lot of water and tends to grow along river banks and streams. Once there, it propagates quickly and diverts water out of waterways and away from agricultural land. It also distorts the shapes of streams by narrowing the waterway itself, increasing flood rates. Additionally, the structure of giant reed makes it burn much hotter than other grasses. This trait increases the risk of wildfires and makes them harder to put out.

You’d think the Renewable Fuel Standard would stick to incentivizing only “renewable” and truly sustainable biofuels. Unfortunately the policy lacks  the safeguards necessary to protect the environment or taxpayers. Although the RFS includes greenhouse gas emissions standards and basic land use provisions, it does not include protections for air and water, biodiversity, or soil. So, even the “advanced” biofuel options come with serious environmental and economic risks. 

If the EPA approves giant reed, it will be adding it to the list of dirty and dangerous biofuels already incentivized by the RFS, including corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. The EPA needs to avoid making a giant problem out of giant reed, and reform the RFS immediately to put an end to the biofuel boondoggle.

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