NPR drops the ball on BC iron dump

In fact, I might even go so far as to say they screwed the pooch. On my drive home today, I heard a story on the radio about a geoengineering experiment off the coast of British Columbia this summer. This story broke last month in The Guardian, and was put in abundant context on Deep Sea News here and here.

As Martin Kaste of NPR reported it, this was an unauthorized experiment by a small Haida village in coastal BC. An organization called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. dumped about 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean, with the goal of fertilizing a plankton bloom that would help support dwindling salmon runs. As a potential by-product, there might be a chance of selling carbon credits if the plankton bloom managed to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Skeptical voices were quoted, of course. A chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska said that not all effects of iron fertilization are necessarily positive. A law professor at UCLA noted there was no system in place to pay for ocean-fertilization carbon credits, and was worried that environmental groups might take advantage of this scandal to push for overly-restrictive laws against geoengineering.

What’s wrong with this story? Let me count the ways:

  1. The glaring absence of Russ George. The NPR story makes it sound as if this was a plucky expedition organized by an enterprising small village. But the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation did not come out of thin air. As The Guardian‘s story makes clear, this is a project of Californian businessman Russ George. And George has a history:

    George is the former chief executive of Planktos Inc, whose previous failed efforts to conduct large-scale commercial dumps near the Galapagos and Canary Islands led to his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments. The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws, and his activities are credited in part to the passing of international moratoria at the United Nations limiting ocean fertilisation experiments.

    How NPR managed to miss these facts—or to omit them—is a bit beyond me.

  2. This quote from HSRC president John Disney:

    When we added iron into the ocean, there was an almost immediate observable impact on marine life, such as whales and other sea mammals, sea birds, pelagic fish. And this could all be observed immediately from the research vessel.

    I could be wrong, but I smell bullsh*t. In these waters, phytoplankton populations would increase noticeably within a day or two following fertilization. But there are few fish that can eat phytoplankton directly, and zero birds or mammals. These animals would have to wait for slower-growing populations of zooplankton, like copepods, to increase following the bloom. This would take at minimum a few weeks. For animals larger than a grain of rice, it would take months. Unless the supposed whales, fish, and birds were cueing on a transient chlorophyll patch—something I haven’t ever heard of—this quote describes something that didn’t happen.

    I can’t really blame a journalist for not knowing the generation times of temperate-water copepods and euphausiids of the top of his head, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t infuriating to hear something like this, unquestioned, on national radio.

  3. The absence of this quote from Guujaaw, the President of the Haida Nation.

    Again, from The Guardian:

    The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention.

    If this quote is accurate, Russ George perpetrated something close to fraud on the Haida Nation. If it isn’t, either Guujaaw or The Guardian is making shit up. Either way, the NPR story looks more than a little incomplete without it…

  4. The omission of the MAJOR scientific issues around ocean iron fertilization. First and foremost, we aren’t even sure if it works. A phytoplankton bloom undeniably takes up carbon dioxide into organic matter. But that carbon only makes it out of circulation if it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is buried in sediment. In between are legions of animals and bacteria that would like nothing more than to eat that organic carbon and respire it back out as CO2. If the carbon is respired at the surface, it could be back in the atmosphere in a matter of minutes. If the organic carbon makes it down deeper–say a couple hundred meters–it could be out of the atmosphere for months or years. If that carbon makes it into the deep ocean, 3 or 4 km down, it might stay out of the atmosphere for a few millennia—but still not permanently.

    That’s where the uncertainty is. Our understanding of the mesopelagic and bathypelagic ecosystems is murky at best. Until maybe 10 years ago, we didn’t really think much about the role of marine microbes in the carbon cycle. Turns out it is enormous, both on the production and consumption sides. While we’re pretty certain that increased plankton production over the long run (centuries to millenia) would take carbon permanently out of the atmosphere, it’s not at all clear if even a massive individual bloom will do much. Think of trying to flood a house through the front door’s keyhole. It won’t really matter if you’ve got a garden hose, a fire hose, or ten firehoses: the house will fill at pretty much the same rate.

  5. The total absence of questions about money. Believe me, there is a lot of money involved here. Any time you have a research cruise, there is a lot of money coming from somewhere. Oceangoing ships cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate. Twenty kg of FeS sells here for $1,000. At this price, the hundred metric tons dumped off BC would cost fifty grand.

    If the village of Old Masset, BC (pop. 940) has that kind of money lying around—to literally pour overboard into the ocean—I will eat my proverbial hat.

    If they don’t, it might be worth asking where the hell it came from, and what its donors expected to get in return, no?

I could say more, but this covers the main points. A discussion of “geoengineering” in general can wait for some other time, since I’ve got school and other work to do. For now, I’ll just point out that making geoengineering profitable through subsidies or carbon credits, while it may be necessary at some point, creates some pretty obvious perverse incentives. How long do you think it would take ExxonMobil to spin off ExxonMobilGeotech? I can see the Sunday Footbal TV ads already…

For over a hundred years, Exxon has helped the world meet its toughest energy challenges. Today, we are proud to announce the start of a new endeavour. ExxonMobilGeotech. Solving the world’s toughest environmental and geophysical problems, for the next hundred years. We are. ExxonMobilGeotech.

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