USDA Grants $136 million for research into use of GE trees and other wood for bioenergy

GE poplars coming to a forest near you?  There is a disturbing new push to transform forests in the Pacific Northwest into GE tree plantations to feed new bioenergy refineries.

On September 28, 2011, US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced it was making a grant of $136 million–its largest grant ever– to several universities and private companies in the Pacific Northwest to promote development of a Northwest “biofuels” industry.

According to an article titled, “UW, WSU to get $80M to Develop Biofuels” in the Seattle Times, this grant is designed to build a new industry that “would be churning out fuel from trees” in the next five years.  They quoted Vilsack, stating, “I’d bet my life on it.”

The grant has several components, including the development of “fast growing poplars” that could mature in just a few years.  The University of Washington plans to develop 400,000 acres of these poplars across the Northwest.

Another article titled, “Pacific Northwest Forests Offer Biomass Bounty” in the Western Farm Press, states that the same grant provides over a half million dollars for Oregon State University to investigate use of genetically engineered trees for dedicated energy plantations.  Most of the research into GE trees at OSU focuses on poplars.

This suggests that the ultimate goal of the grant is the development of industrial-scale genetically engineered poplar plantations as bioenergy feedstocks.  This is highly troubling since this grant was provided by the USDA–which is the same agency that would review any applications requesting permission to grow GE trees commercially.  GE trees are not yet legal to grow on a commercial scale in the US.

Also troubling is the fact that in June, David Nothmann, the Vice President of Business and Product Development for GE tree company ArborGen, was named to serve on the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee which is jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the USDA.  Prior to ArborGen, Nothmann spent thirteen years at Monsanto.

Because of this obvious conflict of interest of the USDA with regard to genetically engineered trees, any requests for commercial release of GE trees will likely result in years of lawsuits to stop them.

This threat of lawsuits, according to an article in Biomass Power & Thermal Magazine, is “representing a tremendous deterrent to investment in [biotechnology], especially on the biomass side, where a lot of them are start-up companies.  It’s making it very hard to get investments [when] you’re going to have to deal with [5-10 years of] litigation. It is creating a huge barrier.”

Other OSU research will study forest health and hazard reduction.  This could indicate that researchers are also looking into use of trees killed or damaged by the western pine beetle as sources of woody biomass.  This is backed up by another article published on September 29th in the Denver Post, titled “Beetle-Kill Pine, Other Wood Pushed as Power Source and way to Aid Ailing Colorado Forests,” which announced a new consortium that is looking at using beetle-killed trees as wood for fuel.

Global Justice Ecology Project’s position is that there is no sustainable way to replace fossil fuels with plants at the scale at which they are used in the US.  An article in Science Magazine “Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentration for Land Use and Energy” from 2009 demonstrates this.  The article points out that the predicted rise in global demand for wood-based electricity alone would require the total conversion of native forests and grasslands to biomass plantations by 2065.

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Oregon State University
Two five-year projects to create aviation fuels of the future out of tree plantations and low-value wood products in the Pacific Northwest were announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and will provide $9.8 million in grants to researchers at Oregon State University.

The OSU work is part of consortia that include the University of Washington, Washington State University, other agencies and private industry – a diverse program of $80 million in research, education, and industrial collaboration.

Participants believe they will develop new ways to produce biofuels and other chemicals while protecting wild forests, growing new biomass in fast-growing hardwood plantations of poplars and alders, and putting to use forest harvest residue.

OSU researchers studying a range of technical issues will receive $5.4 million. Another $4.4 million will establish an important educational component of the program at both the high school and college level, in collaboration with the University of Washington and other education programs in Washington.

“The primary goal of the initiative that deals with forest residue, called the Northwest Aviation Renewables Alliance (NARA), is to find new ways to produce aviation fuel and high-value chemicals using a sustainable supply of biomass,” said John Sessions, a distinguished professor of forestry and holder of the Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management at OSU.

“We hope to create a fuel that’s an exact substitute for existing aviation fuel,” he said. “This is a huge research initiative and an enormous logistical challenge that will require the work of many scientists at OSU and our partner institutions, and ultimately help provide millions of gallons of fuel a year.”

Both projects are funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Much of the OSU work under NARA, Sessions said, will focus on the production and logistics of getting woody biomass out of Pacific Northwest forests at an affordable cost.

“Calculations indicate that the cost of delivered forest wood residue is about half of the production cost of the final products,” Sessions said. “We need to find the best ways to bring residues resulting from harvests and forest health treatments out of the forests and get them to the processing plants.”

Other OSU scientists and engineers will also be involved in studies of forest health and hazard reduction; modeling of the biomass supply; protection of long-term site productivity; impacts on wildlife; genetic improvement of conifers; worker health and safety; and other topics.

In the second project, called System for Advanced Biofuels Production from Woody Biomass in the Pacific Northwest, $4.4 million will establish a new bioenergy education program at OSU. Led by Bioresource Research Director Kate Field, this is part of a $40 million grant to the University of Washington involving bioenergy industries, regional universities and Extension services.

“OSU will prepare students to advance bioenergy research, develop bioenergy businesses and provide leadership in the regional establishment of a bioenergy economy,” Field said. “The funds will provide for scholarships and programs at the pre-college, bachelor’s and master’s levels.”

Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at OSU and an international leader in the genetics of trees, will conduct part of the program that deals with tree plantations grown for this purpose.

Strauss will receive $577,000 from the USDA to study ways to avoid gene movement from genetically engineered trees to wild forests. While not in use today, such trees are expected to help increase economic efficiency and reduce environmental impacts from dedicated energy plantations.

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