CHESAPEAKE BAY:

Oversight panel sees biofuel crops helping cleanup

This story was updated at 6 p.m.

Farming more cellulosic biofuel crops in the Chesapeake Bay watershed could help improve water quality, according to a report released today by an intergovernmental panel overseeing the bay cleanup.

The Chesapeake Bay Commission and the state of Pennsylvania sponsored the report showing that the watershed's farms, forests, unused fields and landfills could produce about 500 million gallons of fuel -- enough to replace the gasoline consumed in the Washington metro area for about six weeks.

The estimate assumes no conversion to biofuel crops of land now used for forestry products, food or livestock production. It also assumes the use of land-management practices to curb nutrients washing off farmland into the bay.

"The focus of the report is to say what kind of opportunities do we have here if we're not going to take farmland out of production or use steep slope and highly erodible land -- what is left?" said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the commission. "It is hard for me to believe the potential for water quality gains."

The study, conducted by Pennsylvania State University, found that biofuel crops combined with traditional agriculture could help clean up the bay. Next-generation biofuel crops -- switchgrass, barley, rye and fast-growing willow and poplar trees -- could reduce erosion and pollution.

The report -- the third examining biofuel crop potential in the watershed -- also predicts that the new industry could create as many as 18,600 jobs in the region.

"An emerging biofuels industry has the potential to significantly impact the Chesapeake Bay region," the report says. "If handled correctly -- in a way that promotes the growth of the industry and also protects the bay's ecosystem -- the economic, energy and environmental benefits could be significant."

The commission recommends that governments in the watershed adopt a "conservative" next-generation biofuels production target of 500 million gallons per year from a mix of agricultural and forest feedstocks. Next-generation biofuels crops are not currently cost-competitive with ethanol or oil because their production is too expensive.

Agriculture in the bay watershed has long been under fire for contributing to nutrient and sediment pollution. U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said earlier this month that she plans to craft and enforce tougher restrictions on agriculture and development in the watershed (Greenwire, Jan. 12).

The commission is urging farmers to plant more winter crops for biofuel production on fields that otherwise lie fallow. The crops could act as a nutrient "sink," soaking up nitrogen and phosphorus that could otherwise get into the water and feed algae blooms.

The report also recommends planting switch grass and other fast-growing cellulosic crops on idle land. Researchers identified 8 million acres of available cropland not currently producing crops. Much of the land available for biofuels crops would be fields planted with corn and soy at other times of the year, recently abandoned cropland or abandoned mineland.

The report does not assume plantings on most conservation land, but researchers identified almost 450,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land as available for switchgrass. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest land retirement program for conservation. The CRP land identified in the report is in a category available for grass crops.

That recommendation did not sit well with Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation. CRP land is planted in grasses to improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat.

"The idea that CRP is sitting there idle and you can put it into monoculture and it would be just as good for wildlife -- it won't," said Sibbing. "It would be devastating."

Sibbing said the report otherwise makes good recommendations for how to develop biomass in the watershed, but it fails to consider biodiversity and lacks specific state actions that would ensure that farmers comply with some of the conservation safeguards.