Even in Brazil, the leading producer of ethanol not made from corn, the man-made motor fuel hasn’t replaced gasoline. Yet it plays a large, and largely beneficial, role in the transportation picture there. And while corn-based ethanol – in which the United States leads the world – is highly controversial, the cane-based product in Brazil is not. So why can’t the U.S. be more like Brazil?
We’re trying, and some of the work is centered in North Carolina. The state Biofuels Center is proposing a $170 million refinery for Sampson County that would, in the hands of its owner, Chemtex, rely on a wild cane called arundo for as much as half the plant matter that would be converted into liquid fuel.
Why arundo? This reed (also called a grass) grows tall and grows fast. “A miracle plant,” the CEO of the Biofuels Center calls it. For biomass productivity, corn can’t hold a candle to arundo, and for a hungry world, that’s a good thing.
Why not arundo? For one thing, it could be a second coming of kudzu. California, where arundo was introduced alongside streams, is waging a costly war against the highly invasive and disruptive plant, which can grow to 30 feet tall. Eastern North Carolina – Chemtex plans to buy arundo from farmers who would grow it in Johnson, Bladen, Duplin and Sampson counties – could be in the same boat if the plant gets out of control.
And though arundo can be sold and planted as an ornamental here, it’s listed as an invasive or noxious weed in the states that border us. The N&O’s John Murawski reports that environmental groups are asking that North Carolina officials “declare arundo a noxious weed and get it banned or restricted in the state.”
It stands to reason that such a fast-growing plant would pose proliferation problems. For that reason, the environmental objections must be taken seriously.
And while it’s true that there’s a counterbalancing environmental interest – replacing at least some gasoline with a renewable, home-grown product – doing do on a scale sufficient to make a difference would mean growing arundo on an equally large scale.
All things considered, it would be better if the biofuels effort here could make its way in the world without relying on this particular plant.
Then there’s an extra twist to the story. It turns out that proponents want arundo to be grown on hog farms’ sprayfields, where the farms’ liquid waste is currently taken up by nitrogen-absorbing plants – a task arundo isn’t particularly good at. For water-quality reasons the sprayfield method is regulated by the feds, who, sensibly, may balk at approving a switch to arundo.
Here’s a suggestion for solving this subset of the problem: Whether or not arundo ever becomes a cultivated crop here, it’s high time that the pork industry moved away from its longstanding reliance on the lagoon and sprayfield method of waste disposal, even if it means investing more in Eastern North Carolina’s environment.