October 11, 2007
Pumping Iron into Ocean Gets Chilly Reception
MIAMI -- The sturdy steel trawler spent the summer on Fort Lauderdale's New River, but the sheltered waters haven't kept the company that owns it from an international storm of controversy over whether its owners' real aim is to help save the planet or just turn a profit.
Planktos, a small California company, intends to spread as much as 100 tons of pulverized iron over the vast Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos Islands, hoping it will fertilize a rich crop of carbon dioxide-gobbling plankton.
Chief executive Russ George touts the experimental technique, called iron-seeding, as a tonic for the environmental epidemics of collapsing fisheries, ocean acidification and, most critically, global warming. If the sea blooms as expected, Planktos aims to cash in by selling "carbon-offset" credits to industrial polluters.
"Our company motto is: Save the world, make a little money along the way," said George, during a tour of Weatherbird II, a 135-foot working vessel largely inconspicuous among yachts docked nearby.
Ship and crew have been quietly holed up in Fort Lauderdale marinas for months awaiting new research gear, and could embark "any day now," George said. But its maiden voyage has been repeatedly postponed amid a wave of questions from environmentalists, scientists and government regulators from Washington to Ecuador.
Lisa Speer, who directs ocean programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, summed up the concerns about the voyage as too many questions and too little oversight.
"This whole area is just totally unregulated. The history of the world is replete with unintended consequences of activities and experiments," said Speer, who attended a conference last week at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts that was sparked by the company's plan.
Others fear the push for profit could trump scientific prudence.
"I question whether or not this is even an actual scientific solution in any way or just a money-making scheme," said George Kimbrell, an attorney for the International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington group that monitors emerging technology.
On its Web site, Planktos bills its "voyage of recovery" as a win-win endeavor that would slow global warming, restore depleted plankton and revive sick seas _ all while allowing savvy investors to tap into "the planet's hottest topic."
Some have greeted those claims with considerable skepticism, including the managers of Galapagos National Park, who branded the plan "scientifically dubious, environmentally dangerous and capable of altering marine food chains." One environmental group, Sea Shepherd, is threatening to intercept the Weatherbird II at sea if it approaches the sensitive archipelago.
There is no dispute that iron, typically distributed in dust storms, is a key nutrient for phytoplankton, the microscopic plants at the base of ocean food chains. Over the last 20 years, researchers have conducted a dozen seeding experiments, mostly in the iron-poor Pacific where plankton has sharply declined.
But George's bloom could be 10 times larger than anything done before and the first triggered for commercial gain. And the company is not alone in aiming to capitalize on global climate concerns.
Several other companies are trolling similar "geo-engineering" plans in Planktos' wake, lured by an emerging market in carbon credits. Under international climate treaties, industries don't necessarily have to reduce existing emissions of carbon dioxide, a prime global warming gas. They can meet stiffening standards by buying "offset" credits from other businesses that have reduced or can capture the pollutant.
While the carbon-trading market is tiny in the United States, which currently isn't a party to the treaties, it's already worth hundreds of millions in Europe. Capturing carbon dioxide now fetches around $5 a ton, a figure George predicts will multiply.
The company also hopes to profit from planting forests in Europe in addition to what George calls "ocean reforestation" _ a strategy reflected in the slogan across the back of his company-issued T-shirt: "I restore trees and seas."
"It's the classic bio-tech start-up. Our project is following exactly in the footsteps of the scientific community's recommendations," said George. "We're gardening in the ocean."
His view is not shared by many environmental groups, which warn of unforeseen ripple effects _ from radically altered mixes of plankton to uncontrolled blooms sucking oxygen out of the seas and killing marine life.
Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole who organized the conference, said there's no doubt Planktos can turn the ocean green, but there are questions about side-effects, good and bad.
"If you add too much iron, you actually kill phytoplankton. If there is not enough, they don't grow," he said. "It's a delicate balance."
There's also dispute, he said, both about the capacity of blooms to absorb carbon and the capabilities to measure how much carbon is "sequestered," or stays put, as the dying algae sinks in ocean depths _ a key to selling carbon credits. Some research suggests seeding could worsen things by producing a plethora of tiny critters that emit even more troublesome gases like methane.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls iron-seeding a "speculative" strategy. At the same time, many scientists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency endorse continued, but closely monitored, research.
Further clouding the water is the fact that no one knows for sure what, if any, regulatory body can monitor Planktos or other companies operating on the high seas.
Speer of the NRDC said laws must be quickly clarified to control expanding commercial experimentation. "This is just a harbinger of things to come. Nobody has any authority to control what this guy is doing out there."
Earlier this year, the Center for Technology Assessment wrote the EPA urging that Planktos be forced to apply for a permit under federal ocean dumping laws.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones replied to questions with an agency statement that the United States shares international concerns that large-scale seeding be carefully evaluated. But the EPA has no jurisdiction over Planktos, the statement said, because it won't be using a U.S.-flagged vessel to dump the iron.
The Weatherbird II would carry the company's team of scientists, George said, but not iron ore. The ship would do its work some 350 miles from the Galapagos, George said, with monitoring of the effects meeting strict scientific standards mandated by the European financial markets.
George dismisses what he calls scare tactics from "environmentalists extremists" and academics protecting research grants. He accused his critics of dithering while oceans die before their eyes from rising acid levels and plummeting populations of fish and plankton _ conditions he contends Planktos could help reverse.
"If the very bottom of the food chain is destroyed in this century, what does that mean in the ocean? It means all the fish disappear," he said. "That's a level of crisis far beyond the level of global warming."