DOE Support for Development of Engineered High Energy Crops

Some of my early (2010-11) posts on this blog discussed strategies being pursued to use advanced biotechnology to create improved varieties of crops, trees, and other plants for use in biofuel production, as well as the companies who have been active in this field (see links below). Although the timeframes for such research projects are inherently somewhat long, due to the need to conform to the life cycles (often annual) of the plants being developed and the need for several years of field testing at escalating acreage, research and commercial activities in this field have continued and progressed. One important driver for this activity has been the funding of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), including the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) division of DOE.

Among the more prominent DOE efforts is the funding program initiated by ARPA-E in 2011 known as PETRO — “Plants Engineered To Replace Oil”. According to the PETRO website, the goals of this program have been to use advanced biotechnology methods to develop non-food crops that directly produce transportation fuel, at prices that are cost-competitive with petroleum. DOE says that at the present time, biofuel production is limited by both the inefficient capture of solar energy by plants and the inefficient processes they use to convert CO2 from the atmosphere into usable fuels.The PETRO program aims to redirect the processes for energy and CO2 capture in plants toward fuel production, to create dedicated energy crops that serve as a domestic alternative to petroleum-based fuels and deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. More specifically, the program was set up to fund research efforts to genetically engineer new classes of crops that produce fuels which can be extracted directly from the plants themselves.  The funded projects feature research on various plants–including pine trees, tobacco, sugarcane, and sorghum–to create molecules already found in petroleum-based fuels that can be dropped directly into the tanks of existing vehicles. 

The following are the programs funded by PETRO beginning in 2011, with links to project descriptions as found on the ARPA-E website.

The PETRO program has been back in the news in recent months, because of DOE’s announcement that it intends to implement programs to support the field testing of “engineered high energy crops” (EHECs), including those developed with PETRO funding, and that in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in doing so, DOE intends to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Environmental Assessments and/or Environmental Impact Statements are required under NEPA for major federal government actions, and any DOE program to support field testing of genetically modified plants would likely be considered to be subject to this requirement. DOE first issued a public Request for Information in April 2013, and this was followed up with a June 21, 2013 Federal Register announcement formally stating its intent to prepare the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) and inviting public comments on the proposed scope of the PEIS. There is a substantial amount of information about this effort available on the PEIS website, and although the public comment period is expiring soon (July 22), I thought it would be worth mentioning this effort in the blog.

DOE anticipates that its program will include providing financial assistance for the field trials that are needed to evaluate the performance of EHECs. Such trials could range in size from small, development-scale (5 acres or less), to pilot-scale (up to 250 acres), and possibly also demonstration-scale, which could entail field plots of up to 15,000 acres. As DOE notes on the website, these field activities would likely require permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under that department’s biotechnology regulations administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and would need to be conducted under conditions of “confinement” that are common in field tests of GMO plants, to limit their potential environmental impact. DOE currently plans to limit its funding activities to field trials that would take place in states in the southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and parts of Florida.

During the course of the public comment period, DOE has held public “scoping meetings” in several states in the region, and also hosted a webinar on July 17. Public comments will be accepted until July 22 (with instructions for commenting found on here on the website), but comments submitted after that date will be considered to the extent possible.

As I’ve previously discussed in the blog, efforts to develop improved plant varieties to use as biofuel feedstocks will likely prove very important for the ability of countries around the world to efficiently produce significant amounts of biofuels from non-food crops. Aside from Syngenta’s Enogen corn (expressing alpha-amylase and phosphomannose isomerase), there are no other genetically modified plant species yet being used in commercial fuel production in the U.S. or any other major market, although there are several examples of plant species improved through classical breeding that are being used or investigated for this purpose. In view of the history of controversies surrounding agricultural biotechnology, and in particular the history of USDA’s biotechnology regulations and the long record of NEPA litigation leveled against it, it is inevitable that biotechnology critics will pounce on any large-scale DOE program intended to support or promote field trials of engineered plants, and express concerns over alleged or hypothetical environmental risks. The route of proactively preparing a PEIS is probably the right one for DOE, and it is certainly wise to begin the effort at an early stage, to be sure that the needed EIS can pass muster under NEPA and be completed in time to enable the planned funding to go forward. It will be interesting to see what the range might be of the public comments DOE receives either during this scoping period, or when a draft EIS is eventually published for public comment.

Earlier blog posts on use of transgenic plants as biofuel feedstocks:

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in government and regulatory affairs support for renewable fuels and industrial biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of over thirty years in the biotechnology industry, with expertise in industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, U.S. and international renewable fuels regulation, patents, technology licensing, and market and technology assessments. Dr. Glass also serves as director of regulatory affairs for Joule Unlimited Technologies, Inc. More information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, and copies of some of Dr. Glass’s prior presentations on biofuels and biotechnology regulation, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 and at www.dglassassociates.com. The views expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Glass and D. Glass Associates and do not represent the views of Joule Unlimited Technologies, Inc. or any other organization with which Dr. Glass is affiliated. Please visit our other blog, Biofuel Policy Watch.

Advertisements