It's fast-growing and drought-tolerant, producing tons of biomass per acre. It thrives even in poor soil and is a self-propagating perennial, so it requires little investment once established.
To people in the renewable fuels industry, Arundo donax â" also known as "giant reed" â" is nothing short of a miracle plant. An Oregon power plant is looking at it as a potential substitute for coal, and North Carolina boosters are salivating over the prospect of an ethanol bio-refinery that would bring millions of dollars in investment and dozens of high-paying jobs to hog country.
But to many scientists and environmentalists, Arundo looks less like a miracle than a nightmare waiting to happen. Officials in at least three states have banned the bamboo-like grass as a "noxious weed"; California has spent more than $70 million trying to eradicate it. The federal government has labeled it a "high risk" for invasiveness.
Many are comparing Arundo, which can reach heights of 30 feet in a single season, to another aggressive Asian transplant â" the voracious kudzu vine.
More than 200 scientists recently sent a letter to the heads of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, urging them not to encourage the commercial planting of known invasives like Arundo.
"Many of today's most problematic invasive plants â" from kudzu to purple loosestrife â" were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes," they wrote Oct. 22. "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."
Mark Conlon, vice president for sector development at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, hates the comparison with "the weed that ate the South."
"There's no market for kudzu," says Conlon, who is among those promoting a proposed $170 million, 20 million-gallon-a-year ethanol project here â" and Arundo's role in it. "There's no reason to manage it. It was thrown out in the worst places you can think of and left there."
His message about Arundo: It'll be different this time. We can control it.
But Mark Newhouser, who has spent nearly 20 years hacking this "nasty plant" from California's riverbanks and wetlands, has his doubts.
"Why take a chance?" he asks.
The back wall of the North Carolina biofuels center's lobby is dominated by a large timeline, beginning with the General Assembly's 2006 recognition of the state's potential as a biofuels leader.
The display ends with a panel declaring "10% in 10 Years" â" meaning that by 2017, a decade after the center's creation, officials hope companies here will be producing the equivalent of a tenth of the liquid transportation fuels consumed in the state annually, or 600 million gallons of renewable biofuel a year.
"An extraordinarily audacious goal," W. Steven Burke, the center's president and CEO, says proudly.
Near the middle of the timeline is this: "November 2011: 50-acre energy grass propagation nursery established with Arundo donax."
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