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Environmentalists are urging the USDA to reject this genetically engineered eucalyptus tree

A man uses a bucket to fight a fire in a field outside the village of Sao Jose das Matas in central Portugal in July. More than 2,300 firefighters with more than 700 vehicles tackled wildfires across steep hillsides of dense pine and eucalyptus forest. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

A genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus tree is moving closer to receiving approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, amid concerns about the tree’s possible negative effects on the environment.

The USDA has proposed lifting restrictions on commercial production of the trees, based on a draft environmental impact statement that concluded the trees pose few significant environmental risks. Planting the trees would “either not differ or may be slightly worse from those caused by the cultivation of planted plantation pine,” the report said.

Brazil approved a genetically modified eucalyptus, created by biotechnology company FuturaGene, for commercial growth two years ago. But this would become the first genetically engineered tree approved for commercial use in the United States.

The announcement comes six years after forestry and biotechnology firm ArborGen filed a petition for deregulation with the USDA, and more than a decade after it began field testing the trees in the United States.

It’s unclear when the final decision on the trees will be made. The agency is considering public comments and it still needs to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the tree’s potential impact on wildlife.

“If there are no new significant issues or information that’s relevant to the environmental impacts, that would require any substantial changes, then we’ll finalize the environmental impact statement and send it on [to the Environmental Protection Agency] to publish,” said Richard Coker, a legislative and public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. If substantial new information about the trees is discovered in the public comments, the agency may reconsider its recommendation to approve the trees.

The USDA has projected in its environmental impact statement that about a million acres of pine plantations could be replaced with the eucalyptus trees, if it wins approval.

The company suggested that the genetically engineered trees could help feed global demand for biomass energy at a time of growing concern about climate change.

But environmental groups say the tree uses excessive amounts of water, increases wildfire risks, and could turn into an invasive species.

And scientists argue that biomass energy produces no climate benefits.

Last year, 65 scientists wrote a letter to senators working on an energy bill that would have legally classified forest biomass as a carbon neutral energy source, warning that it can be a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“This well-intentioned legislation, which claims to address climate change, would in fact promote deforestation in the U.S. and elsewhere and make climate change much worse,” the scientists wrote.

The scientists argued that burning trees produces an immediate effect on the climate by releasing all of their stored carbon at once. It can take years — even decades — for forests to suck the same amount of carbon back out of the air.

Fast-growing trees like eucalyptus can grow and be harvested in less than a decade — but even then, it could take years to make up for the carbon released by clearing out the slower-growing, carbon-rich tree plantations they would be replacing.

Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, and have become a popular choice for wood-pulp plantations because of their quick growth rate,  particularly  in warm climates like Brazil and southern Africa. The trees are ready for harvest in five to seven years.

But in the southeastern United States, winters can get too cold for conventional eucalyptus. Plantations are dominated by native pines and slower-growing hardwoods, which can take several decades to reach maturity.

ArborGen says its trees are capable of withstanding temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It says the trees can ease the demand for hardwood, while continuing to expand U.S. exports of wood pellets and other biofuels. The company did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment.

Wood pellet exports doubled between 2012 and 2013 in response to growing demand in Europe, according to  the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2015, the United States was the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

ArborGen petitioned the USDA in 2011 to grow the trees for commercial purposes. After a number of  studies, the USDA released its draft environmental impact statement in April, indicating it was likely  to approve ArborGen for commercial production.

But environmental groups collected thousands of comments opposing the trees during the public comment period that ended July 5.

According to the Global Justice Ecology Project, environmental groups submitted more than a quarter of a million individual comments, with just three comments in favor of approval.

Steve Strauss, an expert on forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, said it was difficult to predict the trees’ environmental impact without having a better idea of the scale of plantings. Strauss runs a research consortium that ArborGen once belonged to, and the company has funded some of his research in the past, although the relationship has since ended.

If I were USDA, I would probably make a decision to have a provisional deregulation,” he said, allowing some years to go — perhaps a decade — before conducting another evaluation.

Environmental groups have outlined a number of objections — in addition to climate concerns.

Eucalyptus trees are known water guzzlers, said Rachel Smolker, co-director of the environmental organization Biofuelwatch, one of the groups opposing the eucalyptus proposal.

(The USDA acknowledged in its environmental review that eucalyptus trees could affect water supply, but said this would largely be on a local level.)

Beverly Law, a forestry expert at Oregon State University, said eucalyptus trees produce a highly flammable oil, as well as a high volume of leaf litter, which makes them a higher fire risk.

Earlier this summer, Portugal limited the planting of such groves after more than 60 people were killed in a deadly wildfire, widely believed to have been exacerbated by the prevalence of eucalyptus trees.

Environmental groups have also highlighted the eucalyptus trees’ history as an invasive species in California since the mid-19th century, and in much of South Africa.

ArborGen notes in its petition that the genetically engineered trees  produce a “very low number of viable seeds,” and that they have shown no evidence of naturally spreading during tests.