Court challenges stall GM biofuel trees / Algae biofuels
2. Court challenges stall new biofuel crops
NOTE: Item 1 is about the prospects for biofuels made from algae. It contains a telling quote from Jim Bartis, the lead author of a new study from the Rand Corporation, "Alternative Fuels for Military Applications":
"The less the you know about a technology, the better it looks."
Item 2 covers a lawsuit that is challenging the pending approval of Arborgen's GM eucalyptus tree, which is engineered to make biofuels.
1. The Future of Algae Fuels Is ”¦ When?
By TOM ZELLER JR
A blog about energy and the environment
January 25, 2011
As I write in Tuesday's Times, a new study from the Rand Corporation, the global policy think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., and formed more than 60 years ago to advise the American government on military issues, suggests that Department of Defense is wasting its time exploring alternative fuels.
It raised particular questions about the near-term viability of algae-based fuels, which the study's authors considered to be more or less laboratory-level stuff ”” and certainly not likely to scale up to any significant extent in the next 10 years.
Given that the military has gone to great lengths to publicize its ongoing efforts to go green, and in particular, algae-green, the report did not sit well with with everyone.
"We've talked to the companies working on algae-based fuels," said Tom Hicks, the deputy assistant secretary for energy with the United States Navy. "We've also talked to private equity firms, venture capital firms ”” we have a good understanding of what's happening in the marketplace."
Indeed, several critics of the study suggested that its authors failed to engage a number of sectors that might have given them a better understanding of algae's potential as a liquid fuel, its overall state of development and its potential for ramping up to commercial scale at some point in the future.
Certainly a number of investors continue to bet on the promise of squeezing oil from algae in amounts substantial enough to put a dent in the use of petroleum-based fuels. And dozens of companies and academic labs are busy chasing that dream.
Despite all this, the Rand study's lead author, Jim Bartis, remained steadfastly skeptical that the technology would be ready for prime time within the next decade ”” and certainly not ready for widespread military use.
"We think algae is great, but it's a research topic," he said in an interview. "There is no evidence that we can produce it economically anytime soon."
"The less the you know about a technology," he added, "the better it looks."
2. Court challenges stall new biofuel crops
Jan. 23, 2011
Washington, D.C. - The same technology used to engineer most of the corn and soybeans that farmers grow could produce new feedstocks for biofuels - fast-growing trees or hardier perennial grasses that need little fertilizer.
But the genetically engineered feedstock that is closest to commercialization, a eucalyptus tree, is now ensnared in a lawsuit. And government regulations also are a challenge, making it difficult to even field-test biotech versions of potential biofuel feedstocks, including switchgrass, a crop that could be grown in Iowa, experts say.
"Something has to be done to make this sane," said Steven Strauss, a tree breeder at Oregon State University who has conducted research for the company that developed the eucalyptus tree. "This is too big a tool to put it on the shelf."
Genetic engineering is faster than conventional breeding and allows scientists to add traits to plants such as tolerance to drought or cold temperatures and resistance to insects. Conventional breeding is much slower with perennial crops such as trees and grasses than with faster-growing annual crops like corn.
"I do not see how we're going to make the advancements that we need to make without biotechnology," said John Heissenbuttel, co-director of the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production, a coalition of companies and environmental groups working on standards for growing energy crops.
Non-food crops are key to the Obama administration's effort to move the biofuel industry from its reliance on corn. By 2022, refiners are required to use 21 billion gallons of fuels made from sources other than corn.
ArborGen LLC, which was formed by International Paper Co., MeadWestvaco Corp., and a New Zealand firm, developed the biotech eucalyptus tree and has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve it for commercialization.
Critics of the gene-altered tree believe the USDA has been too lenient on biotechnology and don't think the tree's potential for biofuel makes it worth putting it into production. They say the tree, which is engineered to tolerate colder temperatures than the tropical climate where it normally grows, could take over Southern forests and uses too much water. The lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and other groups in a Florida federal court last year seeks to force the USDA to do a more extensive study of their environmental impact.
"Maybe even a gung-ho agency like USDA will take a pause in moving forward" with biotech energy crops, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biotechnology expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We certainly hope they do a more thorough risk assessment than they've done with the food crops."
Genetically engineered crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton are widely popular with farmers and have met little resistance from U.S. consumers. But court challenges have slowed the biotech industry's recent efforts to commercialize biotech alfalfa and sugar beets, and farmers themselves have resisted the introduction of biotech rice and wheat varieties for fear of losing overseas markets.
Eucalyptus trees or switchgrass aren't intended for food, so there are no concerns about human safety. But the government does have to assess the crops' potential to spread where they aren't intended and harm other crops or cause environmental damage.
Other companies such as Ceres Inc. are developing varieties of switchgrass that need less nitrogen, which would save on fertilizer costs and improve the economics of turning the grass into ethanol or other fuels.
It's not clear yet that biotech versions of switchgrass will be needed to make the crop commercially viable, said William Beavis, a plant geneticist who is interim director of Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute.
Scientists are trying to improve the crop through conventional breeding methods and existing varieties, he said. However, breeding new varieties of perennials could take up to 50 years, he said.
"We don't really know what the diversity of natural switchgrass is capable of, or for that matter sorghums or any other number of energy crops in terms of nitrogen efficiency," he said.
Companies are trying to address concerns about the crops' environmental impact by making them sterile. ArborGen has done that with the eucalyptus tree. However, critics say that's no silver bullet because plants can't be made 100 percent sterile.
Strauss, the Oregon State scientist, co-authored an article last year in the journal BioScience that said excessive regulation was stifling the development of energy crops.
USDA regulations are intended to prevent the crops from becoming super weeds, spreading to areas where they are not intended, but the rules are blocking the development of "biofuel crop types and traits that many governments wish to emphasize most because of their anticipated environmental and economic advantages," the article said.
Officials with ArborGen declined to be interviewed, citing a pending securities filing. The company received USDA permits last year for confined plantings at nearly 30 research sites.