Federal regulators have approved an energy wonder crop as a renewable fuel, clearing the way for a major commercial biofuels refinery in Sampson County.
The Environmental Protection Agency ruled Friday that Arundo donax, a giant reed that yields three times as much ethanol per acre as corn, qualifies as a cellulosic renewable fuel. The ruling makes the Arundo reed a contender to replace Midwestern corn in the production of renewable transportation fuel.
The EPA also adopted requirements to address widespread concerns that Arundo, a bamboolike grass, is a dangerous invasive. The approval follows a decision in February by the N.C. Board of Agriculture not to list Arundo as a noxious weed.
Dozens of scientists and environmentalists had urged federal and state officials to put the reed on a list of banned or restricted plants.
“We want to move forward with homegrown sources of renewable energy, but by doing so, we don’t want to fuel the next invasive species catastrophe,” the National Wildlife Federation said in a statement. “We’ve seen time and time again with invasive species good intentions can result in expensive unintended consequences.”
Arundo is the critical element in an ethanol refinery planned by Chemtex and backed by a $99 million federal loan guarantee. The Chemtex plant is being hailed by the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, a state-created organization in Oxford, as the much-anticipated alternative to using food crops for the production of ethanol.
“Because of its very high yield per acre, it can be efficiently grown in a smaller geography,” Biofuels Center CEO W. Steven Burke said. “It is a validation.”
The $200 million Chemtex facility near Clinton, about 65 miles southeast of Raleigh, will employ 65 people and is scheduled to begin operation in 2015. It will use nearly 6,000 acres to grow Arundo on farms within a 50-mile radius in Johnston, Bladen, Duplin and Sampson counties. Arundo, along with other energy crops, would be delivered to the refinery by truck and rail.
To secure financing, the company needs production contracts with local farmers, a key element of Chemtex’s business plan. Chemtex officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Wilmington-based Chemtex operates a biofuels refinery in Italy that processes Arundo.
Its North Carolina strategy calls for processing 300,000 tons of energy crops a year. The crops, including switchgrass and fiber sorghum, would be grown on 23,000 acres.
Arundo is listed as invasive or noxious in several states and is the target of eradication efforts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also declared it a high-risk species. It is fast-growing, even in poor soil, and contains high amounts of energy when converted to fuel.
It is currently grown as a landscape plant in North Carolina and elsewhere, one reason the N.C. Board of Agriculture decided against listing it as a noxious weed.
The EPA ruling on Arundo donax will qualify Chemtex for tax credits for producing biofuel. Burke said the ruling is good news to Chemtex investors.
The EPA said Arundo qualifies as a renewable crop because the energy and emissions generated by its cultivation and processing are 60 percent below the baseline gasoline/diesel level, according to the agency’s computer modeling.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., praised the EPA’s decision.
“Arundo Donax generates less greenhouse gas emissions, uses less land and water than other bioenergy plants, is drought-resistant, and is able to grow even in poor soil,” Hagan’s statement said. “Unlike first generation ethanol derived from corn, cellulosic biofuel will not impact food or feed prices.”