The Big Bad Fix

ETC Group, BiofuelWatch and Heinrich Boell Foundation present a comprehensive argument against geoengineering in this report.

Click here to download the full report (pdf)

As a rapidly warming world manifests heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes, geoengineering – large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – is being presented as a strategy to counteract, dilute or delay climate change without disrupting energy- and resource-intensive economies. Alarmingly, current debates about this big techno-fix are limited to a small group of self-proclaimed experts reproducing undemocratic worldviews and technocratic, reductionist perspectives. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities are excluded and left voiceless.

As this report details, each of the proposed geoengineering technologies threatens people and ecosystems. Holistic assessments of the technologies also show that if deployed they are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming.

The irreversibility, risk of weaponization, and implications for global power dynamics inherent in large-scale climate geoengineering also make it an unacceptable option.

New briefing: Climate change, smoke and mirrors

For the past decade, a small but growing group of governments and scientists, the majority from the most powerful and most climate-polluting countries in the world, has been pushing for political consideration of geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale technological manipulation of the climate.

Geoengineering is inherently high-risk and its negative effects will likely be unequally distributed. Because of this, geoengineering has often been presented as a “Plan B” to confront the climate crisis. But after the Paris Agreement, which set the ambitious goal of keeping the temperature to well below 2°C and possibly even 1.5°C, the discourse has changed. Now, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as an “essential” means to reach this goal, through a mix of risky technologies that would take carbon out of the atmosphere to create so-called “negative emissions” or take control of the global thermostat to directly lower the climate’s temperature.

A new briefing paper by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation in advance of the UNFCCC intersessional meetings in Bonn, May 2017, gives an overview of what geoengineering is and why it is dangerous, as well as up-to-date information on proposed geoengineering technologies and governance.

A crucial read for anyone engaged in the fight against climate change.
Read the briefing paper here.

UN to extend freeze on climate change geoengineering

Iron fertilization involves dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean. Scientists say iron-rich dirt promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sealife. (CBC/HSRC)
Geoengineering proposals include iron fertilization, involving dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean (CBC/HSRC)

Update to this article: The plenary of the COP 13 adopted the decision described below on Friday 9th December

By Ed King (Climate Home)

Draft documents suggest countries will agree to further ban on large-scale climate techno-fixes, warning risks of damage to biodiversity outweigh potential benefits

Countries should resist the urge to experiment with large scale planetary geoengineering until it’s clear what the consequences of meddling with the oceans or atmosphere may be.

That’s the nub of a decision expected to be taken at the UN’s biannual biodiversity summit taking place in Cancun, Mexico this week, emphasising a “precautionary approach” to such projects.

With greenhouse gas emissions closing in on levels that could guarantee warming of 1.5C above pre industrial levels and an El Nino-boosted 2016 likely to be the hottest year on record, some scientists are looking to emergency measures.

But the UN is sticking to a familiar line: pumping the atmosphere with tiny mirrors to deflect sunlight, boosting the uptake of CO2 in oceans by stimulating plankton growth, or burning wood and pumping the emissions underground could be a bad idea.

“We’re concerned that with any initiative regarding the use of geoengineering there needs to be an assessment,” UN biodiversity chief Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias told Climate Home.

“These can have unforeseen results and spin-offs. If you capture carbon in the oceans, this is effective through all the food chains.”

Even national risk assessments on individual geoengineering projects would still form an “incomplete basis for global regulation” says the latest iteration of the UN draft decision, echoing previous Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decisions in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

“More trans-disciplinary research and sharing of knowledge among appropriate institutions is needed,” it says, citing potential impacts on ecosystems and potential ethical issues.

For instance, one study by scientists at the UK Met Office in 2013 said the release of fine particles into the northern hemisphere atmosphere could lower temperatures, but heighten drought risk in the Sahel.

Still, Bristol University academic Matt Watson – one of the UK’s top geoengineering researchers – told Climate Home there are still a “range of experiments that would not have any effect on biodiversity”.

“We are not doing a great job of protecting biodiversity now (the IPCC’s projections are truly terrifying) – how will we know if geoengineering would exacerbate (or reduce) impacts on biodiversity unless we research it?” he said in an email.

That view was echoed by Richard Darton, co-director of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, who said controlled tests allowed under CBD rules should continue “to verify the science and engineering” but that more research was inevitable given the scale of warming

“Whilst I thoroughly agree that we can best cut anthropogenic emissions as the best way to manage climate change, the CBD will have to face the fact that it simply isn’t happening fast enough,” he said.

“Learning more about geoengineering is absolutely necessary. At the moment we have the bizarre circumstance that climate scenarios which will meet 2C assume BECCS [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage] will be applied on a very big scale – an assumption at odds with the resolution of CBD apparently.

“We simply must explore BECCS and all the other techniques to understand what (if anything) they can do for us, and what the entire earth-system and human-system impacts might be.”

The last publicised large-scale geoengineering trial took place in 2012 when a US businessman dumped tonnes of iron filings into the sea off Canada, in violation of the UN moratorium.

The aim was to suck carbon from the atmosphere by stimulating the growth of plankton which would then die and sink to the ocean floor, thus sequestering the CO2.

In 2013, leaked documents revealed Russia pushed for the UN’s climate science body to support the potential of geoengineering to lower global temperatures in its major AR5 climate report.

In the event the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study did cover geoengineering, warning of “numerous uncertainties, side effects and risks” of efforts to manage solar radiation.

Since then, information on other programmes has been thin. Germany is conducting indoor experiments while the UK government recently stumped up £8·3 million (US$10.5m) for research into technologies to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Policy inertia

The UN CBD draft decision notes “very few countries” have provided “information on measures they have undertaken”.

Poor reporting and the lack of debate around the issue are a concern, said Andrew Light, a former US senior state department climate official and a professor at George Mason University, who interpreted the CBD text as a “plea” rather than a ban.

“If we are ever to have a conversation about governance we need to normalise reporting,” he told Climate Home, suggesting this would be a first step before out-of-laboratory experiments are authorised.

“We need to be looking into the full range of activities, especially when we’re talking about the need to move towards net decarbonisation by 2050 or thereafter.”

“Countries have not provided information because they are not talking about it,” said Janos Pasztor, climate advisor to outgoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and head of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project.

“There is practically no discussion at a policy level – it’s a big gap and we need to shift the debate.”

Climate Change Policy and The Super-Hero Syndrome

Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

by Roger Boyd (Resilience)

There is a genre of Hollywood “feel-good” disaster movie, where everything seems nearly hopeless until the end, and then suddenly, many times against all hope, the super-hero (or super-heroes) saves the day. Whether it be human heroes that blow up the Earth-killing asteroid just in the nick of time; good mutants that defeat the bad mutants just in time; bad mutants turned good mutants that destroy the stayed-bad mutants just in time; future humans and non-human allies that save the Galaxy from the Empire. Anyway, you get the general storyline. The bad people/organisms /things win for the first 95% of the movie then the good people/organisms/things win against all the odds in the last 5%.

The United Nations Climate Change bureaucracy, which tends to be full of economists, engineers and enviro-managers rather than actual climate scientists and ecologists, seems to have been watching too many of these feel-good disaster movies. Seems we need to make them watch the “feel bad” disaster movies instead, like the one where the Sun eats up the Earth, or perhaps a steady diet of the unlimited supply of zombie apocalypse movies. They need something a lot darker, where super-heroes don’t save the day. Then again, maybe they should just grow up and accept that super-heroes only exist in movies. Or maybe they should just listen to the scientists and ecologists a lot more.

The United Nation’s main super-hero is called BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). I know, not exactly as catchy as Superman, Thor, Cat Woman, or Wolverine, but what would you expect from a bunch of climate bureaucrats? BECCS is a true super-hero. The Bad Carbon will continue spewing itself into our atmosphere for decades to come, threatening to remove the ecological basis for modern human civilization. BECCS’s friends, Energy Efficiency and Clean Power, will have held back Bad Carbon a bit, but could not stop BC in time! Then at the last minute, just before human civilization melts down, BECCS sucks up BC and deposits it deep in the Earth never to return (well at least for a few thousand years hopefully).

The problem is that BECCS is not real; it’s a bunch of hopes and a religious belief in technology wrapped together. It assumes that we can set aside about a third of the current arable land on the planet to grow energy crops, instead of food. Then we can burn all those energy crops to help power our modern civilization, and can store all of the resulting carbon dioxide (billions of tons of the stuff) underground safely for thousands of years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide per year, needing an infrastructure equivalent to the current oil & gas industry to transport it and pump it into the ground. What tiny-scale testing of the CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) part of BECCS that has been carried out so far could most politely be described as “deeply disappointing”.  Ignoring this, the U.N. people assume that BECCS will start riding to the rescue on a major scale within 20 years or less.

What if BECCS isn’t up to the task? Other eco-technocrats have an army of super-heroes ready to help. These eco-techies seem to be into super-hero ensemble movies – maybe we should call them “The C-Men”. If EE, CP and BECCS cant beat the deadly BC, there is always – wait for it, drum roll please… DAC!!!! (Direct Air Capture) will save the day! BECCS couldn’t suck up enough of the highly concentrated carbon dioxide at the power plant exhaust, but DAC can get enough of it after it has become highly diffuse in the air! If that doesn’t work there is EW (Enhanced Weathering: dig up truly colossal amounts of a certain type of rock, turn it into powder and spread it over the Earth), OF (Ocean Fertilization: fertilize carbon capturing organisms in the ocean), and SRaM (Solar Radiation Management: block/reflect the Sun’s energy to cool the planet).

Why do we need all these super-heroes? Because without these super-heroes we would have to accept that large-scale government intervention will be required to fundamentally change our societies to use a lot less energy. A lot like a war-style economy. A lot less belief in “free markets”, perhaps no economic growth for a while, a ton of pressure for a more equitable sharing of income and wealth, and a lot less use of fossil fuels. Not a reality that the powers-that-be want to deal with. So we get the mythical super-heroes instead.

Those that consider a Trump presidency to be a disaster do not understand that we are already in the disaster. Trump may speed up the disaster a little and is certainly more “in your face”, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem. In a way, you could say he is being a bit more truthful about his version of reality-denial. The problem is the inability of even the “progressives” among the powerful to accept the reality that the time for small measures is gone, and that drastic action is required now. In the early 1990’s, those actions may have been relatively mild. Now, they are much bigger and the longer we wait, the bigger and riskier they get. Only denial, facilitated by mythical technocratic future super-heroes, can keep us from this truth.

Seeds of doubt over iron boost for algae

Algae-800x400by Alex Kirby (Climate News Network)

New research suggests that fertilising oceans with iron to increase the growth of algae that absorb carbon dioxide is not the hoped-for answer to reducing global warming.

LONDON, 28 January, 2016 – One keenly-argued possible way of moderating the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may not work, scientists have concluded.

They say there is evidence that seeding the oceans with iron so that the algae that live there will multiply and devour more CO2 − thus preventing it reaching the atmosphere and intensifying the human contribution to global warming – is not as promising a solution as its supporters hope.

The extra iron can certainly stimulate the algae to grow more vigorously, but at a cost. More algae in one part of the oceans may mean there will be fewer in other areas, the researchers say.

Temperature rise

They report in Nature journal that the depths of the central Pacific Ocean contain ancient sediments that cast doubt on iron’s ability to slow the Earth’s steady temperature rise.

In parts of the oceans that lack the iron that plants need, algae are scarce. Experiments have shown that dumping iron into these areas can encourage algal growth, so large-scale fertilisation could theoretically reduce atmospheric CO2.

The seafloor sediments the team studied show that, during past ice ages, more iron-rich dust blew from cold and barren landmasses into the oceans, apparently producing more algae in these areas and, presumably, a creating natural cooling effect.

But the researchers say increased algal growth in one area can inhibit growth elsewhere, because ocean waters are always on the move, and algae also need other nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates.

If you give them heavy doses of iron, the researchers say, the algae in one region may consume all those other nutrients, leaving the water with little to offer by the time it circulates elsewhere, so that adding iron achieves nothing.

“The basic message is, if you add to one place,
you may subtract from another”

The study’s lead author, Kassandra Costa, a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), says: “There’s only a limited amount of total nutrients in the oceans. So if there’s greater use in one area, it seems you’d have lesser concentrations in other areas. The basic message is, if you add to one place, you may subtract from another.”

Much of the equatorial Pacific’s near-surface water comes from the Southern Ocean, where powerful winds circle Antarctica, helping to dredge large amounts of nitrates, phosphates and other nutrients from the depths where they tend to settle.

The nutrients are so abundant that the resident algae cannot use them all, and artificial fertilisation experiments have shown that adding iron there does cause more algae to grow.

Much of this nutrient-rich water eventually sinks and, in a century or two, reaches the mid-Pacific, where it meets opposing currents from the north and rises, making the nutrients available to near-surface algae. But most of these nutrients pass on by; the mid-Pacific is too far from iron-rich dust sources on land for algae to make much use of them.

Sediment analysed

In 2012, LDEO scientists took cores from the seabed in the region. Costa and her colleagues analysed sediments from the cores dating back to the last ice age, 17,000 to 26,000 years ago. They found two or three times more dust reaching the area compared with today, because of reduced plant cover in the cold, dry climate.

Marine plant growth might have been expected to have increased accordingly, but it didn’t. The sediments showed that productivity stayed the same, or even declined.

The team concluded that algae in the southerly latitudes, which were also dusted at the same time, snapped up the iron, along with most of the other nutrients, leaving the Pacific algae high and dry.

One of the study’s co-authors, Jerry McManus, LDEO professor of geochemistry, says: “This shows how different parts of the system are connected. If you push hard in one place, the system pushes back somewhere else.”

The study itself does not say so, but McManus adds that it suggests “we should be very careful about thinking we can use artificial fertilisation to combat climate change”. – Climate News Network

Recklessly playing God with the planet

A government-sponsored scientific panel called for more research on geoengineering — here’s why we shouldn’t even consider it

by Shannon Hall (ScienceLine)

geoengineering-640x480

Geoengineering — that wild and grandiose idea that suggests we could offset and even reverse the alarming effects of global warming — has been viewed as an insane notion for decades. Surely we’d have to be truly desperate before we’d even consider deliberately fiddling with the planet on such a massive scale.

But now, some experts think we’ve reached the point where we have no choice but to look into geoengineering.

Earlier this year, the National Research Council released two reports that called for more research on the idea. The first report examined ways we could remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At first glance, this might be plausible. But the second report looked at far more controversial methods, such as releasing reflective particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight and therefore cool the Earth.

The second report warned that at this time, these methods were risky and poorly understood. But I’d like to take this a step further: Both reports contain ideas that will never be practical and are actually more dangerous than the problem at hand. We will never understand the risks well enough to justify any of the outlandish schemes that these reports describe.

Most scientists agree that geoengineering should never be a substitute for solving the problem upfront. Sadly, we’ve been so slow to burn fewer fossil fuels and cut our greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists now think geoengineering might help us clean up the mess we’ve already made.

As human beings, we have the tendency to think that technology will save us. But if there’s one lesson we should have learned by now, it’s that we can’t keep playing God with the planet. We simply don’t understand the climate system well enough to predict how any geoengineering method would play out in the future.

Although the first report, on carbon dioxide removal, doesn’t seem completely ludicrous at first glance, it takes just one example to reveal its folly. In 2012, a rogue American millionaire dumped 220,000 pounds of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean to create a massive, carbon-sucking plankton bloom, nearly 4,000 square miles big. This illegal maneuver may have removed some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but scientists worry these blooms can kill marine life and cause toxic tides.

The second report examined a much easier and cheaper approach than removing atmospheric carbon: Spraying reflective particles, called aerosols, into the atmosphere, to intercept incoming solar radiation. This would essentially be the man-made equivalent to volcanic eruptions. WhenMount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, spraying white ash more than 12 miles high, it temporarily lowered the Earth’s temperature by nearly 0.3 degrees for three years. But this method, too, has scary side effects.

Every cloud droplet forms around an aerosol particle. But man-made aerosols differ in size, composition and number from natural aerosols. So they could form radically different clouds.

Scientists aren’t sure how well these man-made clouds would reflect sunlight back into space (therefore reducing the Earth’s temperature). They might be tenuous enough to let more light through. They would also likely affect the raindrops forming within the clouds, creating huge precipitation changes that could bring droughts to some areas and floods to others.

But what’s really scary about geoengineering is that once we start, we can’t really stop. As soon as we quit sucking up carbon dioxide or spraying aerosols into the atmosphere, the Earth will heat up rapidly. And a rapid heat increase is much more dangerous than one spanning a century or more. The world’s ecosystem, not to mention the humans within it, will have little time to react.

So the million-dollar question is: Is geoengineering, despite its obvious drawbacks, still worth investigating — just in case? No. The longer we look into it, no matter how innocently, the more likely we are to do it. We’ll gain some understanding of the climate system and think we know it all. But we will never know every foreseeable side effect.

It’s time to put our resources into harvesting green energy today. Researching geoengineering will only take attention away from the problem at hand. It risks that we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels under the assumption that we’ll fix the issue later. And that’s a chance we simply cannot take.

One thing is certain: The fact that some serious scientists are now calling for more research on geoengineering means we’ve reached a terrifying place. Isn’t it time to finally get serious about cutting carbon emissions instead of holding out for techno-fixes that could backfire disastrously?

Geoengineering is no place for corporate profit making

There is no shortage of ideas from business to save the environment – the problem is when they want to make a fast buck

by Clive Hamilton (Guardian)

If you want to make money out of global warming invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy companies, says Clive Hamilton Photograph: Jochen Tack /Alamy“Save the world and make a little cash on the side.” That’s the motto of Russ George, the colourful entrepreneur behind Planktos Science who wants to put geoengineering into practice now. George is convinced that by adding iron sulphate to the oceans, he can stimulate plankton blooms and so suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to offset human emissions from burning coal and oil.

In 2007, backed by a Canadian real estate developer, the Planktos ship set sail from San Francisco bound for the Galapagos Islands and loaded up with iron sulphate. George was going to make a killing by selling carbon offsets to whoever wanted them.

George believed, and told whoever asked, that ocean fertilization could become a $100bn business and hinted to journalist Jeff Goodell that America’s biggest coal-burning utility was interested in buying his carbon credits.

The venture soon collapsed, leaving a cloud of mistrust hanging over all research into iron fertilisation. Not long after Russ George set the regulatory alarm bells ringing, the London Convention, which regulates ocean dumping, and the Convention on Biological Diversity both passed resolutions banning iron fertilisation experiments except under restrictive conditions.

Rogue geoengineers like Russ George drive respectable researchers crazy, not to mention those business people who think there really are profits to be had from a plan B. On this question, last week’s report by the US National Research Council (NRC) stresses that carbon dioxide removal is expensive and limited by “technical immaturity”.

A range of companies have identified business opportunities in technologies designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere more or less permanently. Those who believe they can profit from carbon credits because polluters with emission caps will pay for them point to the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which allows parties to meet their emission reduction obligations by paying developing countries to grow forests onto land cleared long ago.

More trees means more carbon dioxide soaked up in vegetation rather than in the air, at least for a time. However, worried about the verifiability and permanency of carbon dioxide stored in trees, the European Union does not allow credits generated that way to be traded in its emissions trading scheme.

And the commercial promise of other methods of carbon dioxide removal is likely to be very limited. Credits for using giant machines to remove the gas are not likely to be accepted internationally for a long time, if at all, not least because the industrial infrastructure needed for extraction would need to be about as big as the infrastructure that puts it there – oil wells, coal mines, railways, pipelines, power plants, refineries and so on.

Neverthless “air capture” technologies are being developed by firms like Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company founded by Harvard physicist and geoengineering enthusiast David Keith. They are ventures looking for a rationale, but that has not stopped Alberta oil sands billionaire N Murray Edwards and Bill Gates from investing in the company.

Ethical dilemmas

The prospects are awful when fossil fuel companies play both sides of the fence – oil companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips have also put money into geoengineering. Is it ethical for the polluters to promote technologies that may allow them to continue to pollute?

If the promises made by geoengineering erode the political incentives requiring polluters to cut their emissions, will we see fossil fuel corporations begin lobbying to get political endorsement for climate modification?

The ethical and political difficulties deepen when we get to the other kind of geoengineering scheme reviewed in the NRC report, “albedo modification” – formerly known as solar radiation management – schemes to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface.

No one will ever make money out of trading emission reduction credits in global dimming. But some commercial outfits can envisage a desperate world paying them princely sums for access to the technology for doing it.

There have been a flurry of patents being issued, 28 at the last count, including one for a hose suspended by blimps in the sky that would spray sulphate aerosols. Branded the StratoShield it’s owned by a firm named Intellectual Ventures, which markets the device as “a practical, low-cost way to reverse catastrophic warming of the Arctic – or the entire planet.”

Among the investors in Intellectual Ventures who perhaps see themselves making a motza from planetary catastrophe are Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft, and Bill Gates himself. If the future of the world comes to depend on the Stratoshield, will they play hardball?

So here’s the bottom line: if you want to make money out of global warming invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy companies. They are guaranteed winners and your children will not hate you for it.

 

Another study reveals dangers of geoengineering through ‘iron fertilisation’

Diatom, picture: Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine ResearchYet another study questions shows how dangerously simplistic the assumption that dumping iron filements into oceans will sequester carbon is.  This latest study, by Ellery D. Ingall et al, published in Nature Communications, looks at a particular type of phytoplankton, a diatom which soaks up iron from oceans and stores it in its skeleton and thus, when the phytoplankton dies, on the ocean floor.  Continue reading “Another study reveals dangers of geoengineering through ‘iron fertilisation’”

Don’t Dump Iron — Dump Rogue Climate Schemes

George-Russ-Dumping-from-Ocean-Pearl-2012-Photo-HSRCOriginally posted to Huffington Post

by L. Jim Thomas

The press release had a pretty stark headline: “Haida Announce Termination of Russ George.” If the name sounds familiar its because he is the Californian businessman who last year led the world’s largest, and unapproved, geoengineering (climate manipulation) scheme to dump over 100 tonnes of iron into the Pacific ocean west of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Dubbed a “geo-vigilante” by The New Yorker and a “rogue” geoengineer by almost everyone else (including the World Economic Forum and Canada’s environment minister Peter Kent), George was the guy who persuaded the small impoverished indigenous community of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii to part with over $2.5-million. He did so under the pretense that dumping iron in the ocean to stimulate a plankton bloom would net lucrative profits in the carbon credit market and maybe even bring back salmon stocks. Continue reading “Don’t Dump Iron — Dump Rogue Climate Schemes”

B.C. village’s ocean fertilization experiment probed

Environment Canada investigating after iron-rich dust dumped off coast

Fifth Estate (CBC)

U.S. businessman Russ George, chief scientist and CEO for the HSRC, has been a proponent of the controversial idea of iron fertilization for years. (CBC/HSRC)

Environment Canada’s enforcement branch has executed search warrants in British Columbia as part of an investigation into a controversial iron-fertilization experiment that took place off the coast of Haida Gwaii, B.C., last summer, CBC’s the fifth estate has learned.

In July 2012, the Haida village of Old Massett and an American businessman dumped 100 tonnes of iron-rich dust into the ocean off Haida Gwaii, sparking international controversy.

In an exclusive interview, Ken Rea, chief councillor of the village, told the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay that despite two UN resolutions banning iron fertilization and anti-dumping legislation in Canada he would like to do it again and make it sustainable

Ken Rea, chief councillor of the village of Old Massett in Haida Gwaii, says that he would like to bring iron fertilization back to Canada and make it sustainable, despite anti-dumping legislation. (CBC)

“After all the uproar, based on a whole bunch of inflammatory mischaracterized words, after calling it illegal, calling it dumping, calling it rogue and not having any of the evidence to back up their statements, none of it, they had no evidence to back all these statements up, we have it,” Rea says in an interview that airs on the fifth estate Friday at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in N.L.

Old Massett residents invested $2.5 million to start the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) and initiate the iron-fertilization project in hopes that it would boost the salmon population.

U.S. businessman Russ George, the chief scientist and CEO for the HSRC, has been a proponent of the controversial idea of iron fertilization for years.

Scientists say iron promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sea life. George based the experiment on the theory that growing artificial plankton blooms can remove carbon from the atmosphere and help reduce global warming.

Plankton absorb carbon dioxide from the sea and the air; the theory is that when plankton die they take carbon to the bottom of the ocean. Countries or companies that produce a lot of carbon could then buy carbon credits from the company that created the artificial plankton bloom.

There have been more than a dozen studies on iron fertilization in oceans with varying results, but there is no conclusive evidence plankton can remove substantial amounts of carbon from the environment in the long-term.

Some scientists say putting iron in the ocean is dangerous, because it could create “dead zones” where nothing can live. John Cullen, a professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says unregulated experiments, such as the one off the coast of Haida Gwaii, should not be allowed.

“If those consequences cannot be predicted with confidence and verified with measurements then the activity should not be permitted,” he said.

George first gained media attention when he tried to do an iron-fertilization project off the Galapagos Islands in 2007. His company, Planktos Inc., attempted to dump 100 tonnes of iron-rich dirt near the World Heritage site before he was stopped by governments and environmentalists.

Jim Thomas, of the environmental action organization the ETC Group, says a UN moratorium on iron fertilization was passed with George in mind.

“It was prompted by what Russ George was planning to do, so we then had two international moratoria in place. And since then there has actually been even further agreements through other bodies,” Thomas told the fifth estate.

Old Massett residents said three meetings were held in 2011 before the community voted to approve the project. April White, a local artist and geologist, told the fifth estate the project was pitched by the village’s economic development officer, John Disney.

Iron fertilization involves dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean. Scientists say iron-rich dirt promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sealife. (CBC/HSRC)

“He said this project would bring in so much money. Everybody would have jobs because he had customers already lined up to buy the carbon credits from rich industries in Europe,” White said.

There is currently no regulated market for carbon credits based on fertilizing the ocean. Since there is no proof that plankton actually removes carbon in any significant way, there is no market.

White says Old Massett residents were also told the project would bring back salmon. That convinced them to vote in favour of the project, she said.

“Salmon is very much a part of the culture — I like to say we’re salmon people. It’s what connects us to nature. For the salmon not to come back in the same numbers is a real trauma. It really is a heartfelt thing.”

According to Rea, the salmon have all but disappeared and the loss has hit his fishing community hard. He said unemployment in Old Massett is about 70 per cent.

George declined to speak with the fifth estate. The HSRC website says that through this project the company is “working to learn how to replenish and restore the ocean plankton blooms, the ocean pastures, and salmon.”

The iron-fertilization experiment has split the Haida nation.

Residents of Skidegate First Nation, a Haida community 100 kilometres south of Old Massett, told the fifth estate they believe their reputation as stewards of the environment has been tarnished by what the village of Old Massett has done.

In an email to the fifth estate, Environment Canada said ocean fertilization is not allowed under Canadian law unless it qualifies as legitimate scientific research. Environment Canada says it did not receive an application from the village of Old Massett and is still investigating.