ECUADOR: Doubts Surround Carbon Absorption Project Near Galapagos

by Stephen Leahy (IPS News)

Diatoms are one type of plankton. Credit: NOAA/Neil Sullivan USC

PUERTO AYORA, Galápagos, Ecuador, Jul 13 2007 (IPS) – Later this month a U.S. company, Planktos Inc., plans to dump 100 tonnes of iron dust into the ocean near Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, despite opposition from environmental groups and marine scientists.

This will be the first-ever commercial effort to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the main gases blamed for climate change, by using iron particles to create a 10,000-square-kilometre “plankton bloom”.

Planktos says the extra volume of these small, floating organisms will absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and take it deep into the sea. And this method may be the fastest and most powerful tool to battle climate change.

“The currents will likely bring the bloom into the [Galápagos] Marine Reserve,” covering 133,000 sq. km, the world’s third largest marine reserve, says Washington Tapia, director of the Galápagos National Park, which includes the reserve.

“We don’t have any idea what will happen… We have tried to contact Planktos to get more information, without success,” Tapia told Tierramérica in Puerto Ayora.

The 19 islands of the archipelago, located 1,000 km from the Ecuadorian coast, and the surrounding seas are seen as a prime example of natural history, and inspired part of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution after visiting the Galápagos in the 19th century.

“Why is this being done so close to the Galápagos, a World Heritage site,” asks Pablo Barriga, project coordinator for FUNDAR Galápagos, a non-profit organisation based in Puerto Ayora that supports sustainable development and conservation of the islands.

“Some scientists say there may be ecological risks with this experiment. Why not do it elsewhere in the Southern Ocean?” Barriga said in an interview.

Planktos is in the new and growing business of carbon sequestration. “Removing CO2 from our oceans and atmosphere by healing the seas, growing new climate forests, and erasing carbon footprints” is the Planktos vision according to its website.

Sequestration means that trees the company plants in Eastern Europe absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. That carbon is trapped for 60 or 80 years, depending on the lifespan of the tree. In Europe, Planktos can sell carbon credits to companies to offset their own emissions to meet local or international regulations.

Ocean carbon sequestration has been tested in several small experiments over the past 20 years. Most have shown that adding iron to ocean waters with an iron deficit – like the Southern Oceans – will promote growth of plankton, which need this nutrient to live. And since the plankton absorb carbon, this boosts the amount of atmospheric carbon taken up by the ocean fauna.

However, in choosing the Galápagos for its first large-scale ocean sequestration experiment, Planktos sparked a firestorm of protest.

“There’s a real risk that this experiment may cause a domino effect through the food chain,” said Sallie Chisholm, microbiologist and board member of the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement.

The Planktos project “threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk, and it should be stopped,” according to Elizabeth Bravo of the Ecuador-based Acción Ecológica.

But Planktos maintains it is only trying to correct imbalances caused by human activities, including climate change, that have cut the natural aerial dust delivery of iron to the open oceans by nearly 30 percent in the last three decades.

“This has resulted in serious ecological impacts, namely a 50 percent die-off of plankton in many regions,” says Planktos spokesperson David Kubiak.

And one of the regions suffering from this decline is 300 to 400 miles west of the Galápagos, where the company plans to put 100 tonnes of micron-sized iron particles into the ocean, Kubiak told Tierramérica.

“The waters in the Galápagos region itself have plenty of iron and any excess iron or plankton from our experiment won’t cause any problems for the marine life there,” he says.

This is the first of six experiments adding iron to oceans that Planktos hopes to carry out over the next two years.

The company believes that if plankton were restored to 1980 levels it would annually remove three to four billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to slow global warming five times more effectively than immediate universal compliance with the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which obligates industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A February 2007 article in “Science” magazine reviewed previous experiments – called iron enrichment or fertilisation – between 1993 and 2005. Scientists concluded that large-scale enrichment could affect the planet’s climate system and that more study was necessary.

“It works – enrichment does remove carbon from the atmosphere. But we do not know how long carbon will be removed,” says co-author Kenneth Coale, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, in California.

Planktos is simply taking previous experiments to the next larger-scale level and will monitor the effects for up to six months on average, says Kubiak.

If the company can verify how much carbon is sequestered, then the sales of carbon credits likely will more than cover the costs of the experiments, he says.

“I think it should be carried out under the umbrella of a United Nations agency which we (various colleagues) are trying to set up,” Victor Smetacek, another co-author of the Science report and a bio-oceanographer at the University of Bremen, Germany, told Tierramérica in an e-mail interview.

However, such large-scale experiments in oceans suffering from overfishing and the impacts of climate change make many scientists nervous.

“It is far too soon to market iron fertilisation as a carbon sequestration tool,” says Ed Boyle, with the chemical oceanography group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the U.S. city of Boston.

“There is too little known about the effectiveness of large-scale, human-injected iron (compared to natural iron) and the consequences of this injection,” Boyle told Tierramérica.

UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) on Jun. 26 added the Galápagos Islands to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, due to impacts and threats from illegal immigration and fishing, invasive species and a booming tourism industry.

“The last thing we need here is another environmental problem,” says park director Tapia.

(*Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)


WWF condemns Planktos Inc. iron-seeding plan in the Galapagos

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today announced its opposition to a plan by Planktos Inc. to dump iron dust in the open ocean west of the Galapagos Islands. The experiment seeks to induce phytoplankton blooms in the hopes that the microscopic marine plants will absorb carbon dioxide. The company is speculating on lucrative ways to combat climate change. Reports indicate that Planktos, Inc. – a for profit – is planning other large-scale iron dumping in other locations in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The current experiment could negatively impact the unique marine ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.

Scientists have warned against this type of ‘geo-engineering’ schemes, which have – in the case of iron seeding – clearly shownnot to work and could harm ocean life (previous post). Simulations also indicate that such strategies carry considerable environmental risks and could even worsen the effects of climate change (earlier post). For these reasons, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change has clearly stated in its latest report that none of these techniques carry a priority to mitigate climate change (report of the IPCC’s Working Group III).

There are much safer and proven ways of preventing or lowering carbon dioxide levels than dumping iron into the ocean. This kind of experimentation with disregard for marine life and the lives of people who rely on the sea is unacceptable. – Dr. Lara Hansen, chief scientist, WWF International Climate Change Program

One of those far more feasible and less risky geo-engineering options is the implementation of carbon-negative bioenergy systems (also known as ‘Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage’ or BECS, see earlier post, and here, here).

According to a summary by the United States Government submitted to the International Maritime Organization, Planktos, Inc. – a for-profit company – will dump up to 100 tons of iron dust this month in a 36 square mile area located approximately 350 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. Planktos, Inc. plans to dump the iron in international waters using vessels neither flagged under the United States nor leaving from the United States so U.S. regulations such as the U.S. Ocean Dumping Act do not apply and details do not need to be disclosed to U.S. entities:

World Wildlife Fund’s concern extends beyond the impact on individual species and extends to the changes that this dumping may cause in the interaction of species, affecting the entire ecosystem. There’s a real risk that this experiment may cause a domino effect through the food chain. – Dr. Sallie Chisholm, microbiologist, MIT and board member, World Wildlife Fund

Potential negative impacts of the Planktos experiment include:

  • Shifts in the composition of species that make up plankton, the base of the marine food chain, would cause changes in all the species that depend on it.
  • The impact of gases released by both the large amount of phytoplankton blooms induced by Planktos, Inc. and resulting bacteria after the phytoplankton die.
  • Bacterial decay following the induced phytoplankton bloom will consume oxygen, lowering oxygen levels in the water and changing its chemistry. This change in chemistry could favor the growth of microbes that produce powerful greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide.
  • The introduction of large amounts of iron to the ecosystem – unless it is in a very pure form, which is likely cost-prohibitive at the scales proposed – would probably be accompanied by other trace metals that would be toxic to some forms of marine life.

In the waters around the Galapagos, some 400 species of fish swim with turtles, penguins and marine iguanas above a vast array of urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, anemones, sponges and corals. Many of these animals are found nowhere else on earth.

If you feel like protesting against Planktos Inc.’s questionable experiment – we do – then join us in writing to the company to express your concerns. Send your email to Russ George, CEO of Planktos

Company plans ‘eco’ iron dump off Galapagos

by Catherine Brahic (New Scientist)

Ocean plankton blooms appear as green patches in the blue of the oceans. Some say they could be used to soak up human CO2 emissions (Images: SeaWiFS Project/NASA and GeoEYE)

Update 25 June 2007: The scientific working group of the London Convention expressing its concern regarding “the potential for large-scale ocean iron fertilisation to have negative impacts on the marine environment and human health” on 22 June. The group has requested that the full London Convention, which meets on 5-9 November 2007 “considers the issue of large-scale ocean iron fertilisation operations with a view to ensuring adequate regulation of such operations”. Read the full statement of the scientific working group here.

Original article, 22 June 2007: A private company’s plans to dump 100 tonnes of iron particles into the Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos, to trigger a plankton bloom, are being discussed by the International Maritime Organization today.

The chief executive of carbon-offsetting firm Planktos says the scrutiny is unwarranted as the amounts of iron his company will dump are minuscule.

Planktos is a private company which sells UN-approved carbon credits and uses the money for forestry projects. It plans to sell carbon “off-set” credits to fund future ocean iron-dump projects.

The US company is also one of a few budding organisations seeking to operate large-scale experiments to dump fine iron particles into the ocean in order to boost the growth of tiny plant plankton, called phytoplankton.

Natural clouds of iron dust deposited on the sea by the winds can trigger large plankton blooms that can be seen from space as greenish patches in the midst of blue ocean waters.

In the past 20 years, 10 ocean expeditions around the world have attempted to trigger phytoplankton blooms by purposefully seeding the waves with fine iron dust.

Controversial experiment

Some believe these experiments could be a solution to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: as the phytoplankton grow into blooms, they absorb the gas from the atmosphere, much like trees do. A portion of this sinks to the sea floor when the plankton die, effectively transferring CO2 from the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean.

Some experts believe that experimenting with ocean iron-dumps should be accelerated and that academic research has been too limited. However, most are concerned that iron-dumping may have disastrous effects on the local ecology and biodiversity. Phytoplankton are right at the bottom of the marine food-chain and tampering with the amount of phytoplankton in the oceans may effect the entire marine ecosystem.

Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegner Institute for Polar and Marine Research agrees that too little is known about phytoplankton. That is precisely why he would like to see more iron fertilisation experiments carried out under international agreement and regulated by a United Nations body. “I am probably the only senior scientist who is advocating this, however,” he told New Scientist. “The way I see it is the experiments should be run by scientists [not by private companies], but the scientific community as a whole is against this.”

Smetacek has just received funding from the Indian government to carry out an iron fertilisation experiment in the Scotia Sea, off the coast of Antarctica, in 2008. In the long run, he says iron fertilisation activities should be run by a dedicated United Nations body.

Outside the law?

Each of the 10 expeditions carried out so far have dumped up to 10 tonnes of iron particles. Planktos intends to take the iron fertilisation experiments further than publicly-funded research has so far.

It is planning six expeditions, each of which will dump up to 100 tonnes of iron. It says it will study the plankton bloom more extensively and for longer than has been done in the past.

A US civil society organisation called the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) believes that Planktos’s planned activities are in breach of law.

“There is a law against dumping material into the ocean without permits. Yet, this is exactly what Planktos plans on doing,” says staff attorney George Kimbrell of the CTA. “We are asking the US Environment Protection Agency [EPA] to launch an immediate and full investigation into Planktos’s ocean-dumping activities.”

When New Scientist contacted the EPA, it was told that Planktos has indicated to the agency that it will dump the iron particles from a ship registered outside the US, thereby avoiding any conflict with the US Ocean Dumping Act. “This is no longer within our jurisdiction,” an EP official said.

Natural substance

Planktos, whose US-registered research ship Weatherbird II is currently having equipment fitted for the first iron fertilisation expedition – scheduled to take place in international waters off the coast of the Galapagos – says that it has not yet decided whether or not it will operate from this vessel.

Planktos chief executive Russ George told New Scientist that it is awaiting formal notification that its activities are not legal under US law.

If it receives such notification, says George, it will consider dumping the iron from a foreign ship and carrying out the subsequent monitoring research from Weatherbird II.

George says the quantities of iron his company is proposing to dump are well below quantities that require EPA approval under the US Ocean Dumping Act.

“The act states that if you are putting a natural substance into the ocean you don’t have to apply for a permit,” says George. He says the iron particles he uses are very finely ground particles of haematite, a rock that is naturally rich in the mineral.

Low concentrations

“The other clause is that if you don’t raise the concentration of the substance in the ocean to 0.01% of acute toxicity levels you don’t need to apply,” says George.

“We are seeking to raise concentration of iron to something in the neighbourhood of 50 parts per trillion. When I looked up the acute toxicity of iron I couldn’t find it, but I could find that the concentration of iron in breast milk is tens of parts per million. Over the counter iron supplements contain 100 ppm.

“We are a million times below the level required to maintain life, not 0.01% below the level of acute toxicity,” concludes George. “When I pointed that out to the EPA they said: ‘Well we don’t have to go by that’.”

George says he is now awaiting formal notification from the EPA in order to decide what ship to dump his iron from. The EPA says the matter is no longer under its jurisdiction because Planktos has told them it will not dump from a US ship.

Careful evaluation

Meanwhile, the US government has apparently not turned its back on the matter entirely. The scientific working group of the International Maritime Organization’s London Convention, which regulates dumping at sea, is meeting from 18 June to 22 June in Spain.

A document submitted by the US government has required that Planktos’s activities be considered by the IMO.

The document states: “Because this iron release project will not be done by vessels flagged in the US, or by vessels leaving from the US, the US government does not have jurisdiction to regulate this project under its law implementing the London Convention.

“The US believes that the iron addition projects proposed by Planktos, Inc. should be evaluated carefully by any state that has appropriate jurisdiction over this activity.”

Originally posted by New Scientist.

Open reply to Planktos

by Jim Thomas (ETC Group)

As well as dealing with Monsanto in Munich this week, ETC Group has also been raising the alarm about a massive geo-engineering experiment scheduled for this month around Galapagos by Planktos Inc.

The New York Times carried a very uncritical piece about Planktos earlier in the week, which was also picked up by The Times in London and The Independent also in the UK. ETC then put out a news release pointing out that the scientists of the IPCC (UN climate science body) were about to be very critical of geo-engineering in their report and that 47 scientists writing in the journal Nature had been critical of it last week! You can read more about that here. One of the places this opened up a debate was on environmental blog Gristmill. And what a debate! Planktos Comunications director David Kubiak posted a bizarre and vitriolic attack on ETC’s news release and then went on to challenge us to an open debate.

We like the idea of an open debate. We also think Plantos should respect the precautionary principle and if they want such a debate in good faith would hold off their planned trial. Below is the response to Planktos that we have just posted to Gristmill

In response to Planktos:

On this forum David Kubiak, Planktos Communications Director, posted a blustery (and bizarre!) attack on ETC Groups recent news release about his company’s impending iron fertilization experiment in the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands. Yesterday was a busy day for ETC Group because we concluded — and won — a 13 year old lawsuit against Monsanto that has led to the rejection of Monsanto’s species-wide soybean patent. (see where we will also post this note).  The trial hearing was in Munich and we’ve been busy.  Below however is our response to Planktos.

Firstly, we would like to be clear to Mr Kubiak and others that  these are not Mr Thomass arguments (as he characterised them). They are the position of ETC Group. There is no need to personalise this debate.

Secondly, we note that Planktoss vitriolic “rebuttal” actually sidesteps most of what was in the news release namely that UN IPCC , the most eminent body of climate scientists in the  world ,overseen by governments, have decided that geo-engineering schemes – and ocean fertilisation in particular – are unproven,  unlikely to work and raise serious risks. This is published today (Friday) but was leaked to the media some days ago.The same message came very clearly from a paper last week in Nature (Blain et al.). signed by 47 internationally-respected ocean scientists.  It says just about everything anyone needs to know about this company that Planktos did not address these two scientific reports in its rebuttal but opted, instead, to attack paper tigers and spread invective.

Planktos  also invited ETC Group  to an open public debate. Of course we agree and have specific proposals to expedite this debate (see below).

Regardless, Planktos should accept the Precautionary Principle and immediately announce that it will suspend its iron fertilization trial until there is a public debate and, also, pending the results of a transparent technical evaluation of their project conducted by a panel of internationally-respected ocean scientists drawn from the IPCC and including experts from the Pacific region where the experiment is intended.  If Planktos is not prepared to do this and does not recognize the Precautionary Principle, the world community should be concerned.

We propose three public debates.  The first debate should take place as quickly as possible in Ecuador (which has the sovereign responsibility for the UNESCO World Heritage Site). Dr Elizabeth Bravo of Accion Ecologia can arrange this debate and can also facilitate appropriate discussions with the Ecuadorian government at the same time.  It is not necessary for ETC Group to be involved in this debate, Ecuadorians are capable of attending to their own concerns.  We’ll be happy to forward contact information to Planktos.

ETC Group is quite prepared to participate in the second and third debates.  We propose a second debate during the UN Commission on Sustainable Development now taking place (until May 11) in New York City.  If we can reach quick agreement on this, it may be possible to arrange a side-event during the CSD to which governments and civil society organizations could be invited.  This would allow for a full debate.  Time is short, but we are prepared to undertake organizational work for this debate. If the time frame is too short a side-event could also be arranged at the UN in New York the following week at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues which commences its 6th session on 14th may 2007.

Finally, we propose a debate before the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its SBSTTA (scientific subcommittee) when it meets in Paris July 2 – 6. at that time it will be considering teh biodiversity impact of climate mitigation schemes.  Again, we believe we can arrange for a side-event that will allow for the debate to be witnessed by governments and civil society.

As to the points which Planktos unhelpfully characterised as  deceptions. Below are some replies. As we already noted this really did not seem to address the substance of our news release.

  • The reference to Galapagos came repeatedly from Planktos who launched their so-called voyage of recovery to Galapagos back in  March linking it explicitly with Darwins Voyage. Indeed after reading Planktos communications for some time this forum is the first time we have  seen a more precise reference of where the dumping site is intended. We are not sure if we share Planktoss view that the deeper waters  of the Pacific are anemic and lifeless.
  • ETC Group bears no responsibility for the Planktos website being four years out of date or using the technical word nanoparticles in a non-technical manner. It is true that Mr.Kubiak told us last week that the particles would be at around the micron scale in a telephone conversation. His comment was correctly acknowledge in our news release.  He also said the company had never used the term nanoparticle which is not true. As the company’s communications officer, he should perhaps become more familiar with his own website.  “Nanotechnology” is not a scare term.  Many companies use the term (sometimes incorrectly as here) to exaggerate the “cutting edge” nature of their technology.
  • Regarding Nuclear Fusion Cold fusion is believed to be a form of Nuclear Fusion .We merely stated that Planktos has a mirror company involved in Nuclear fusion. Its hard to see how that is a smear.. D2fusion describes their work variously as Cold Fusion Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, and  Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions,..
  • Ulf Riebesell was not the only critic of iron fertilization quoted in Nature. The forty-seven scientists  who co-authored the paper under discussion went out of their way within the paper to say that their paper should not be used to justify iron fertilization schemes. On their own website they also said that they saw their finds as the end of the dream of iron fertilization. When we contacted the lead author, Stephane Blain he was particularly emphatic that they did not want geo-engineers to misleadingly use their findings to justify their case – in the way Planktos apparently have.
  • It is unfair to both Dr Elizabeth Bravo (of Accion Ecologica) and Dr Paul Johnston (of Greenpeace) to characterize them as misled. Both are highly respected and very experienced environmentalists with enviable international reputations. It is also slightly ironic since Greenpeace rather claim that Planktos misled them: Planktos, having used a personal connection in Greenpeaces US office to borrow an inflatable boat , went on to portray Greenpeace as supportive of Planktos during a PR stunt in Washington DC Harbour recently. Greenpeace USA had to send threatening legal letters to have that misrepresentation removed from the Planktos website.
  • ETC are glad to see that Planktos will surrender any prize money to charity.
    Nonetheless Planktos own communications has very much emphasised the money that Planktos hope to make – especially to investors  who have been invited to buy stock in the company. As we noted in our news release Planktos CEO Russ George has called this more of a business experiment than a scientific experiment.