Melissa Felder: Beware the rogue geoengineer
With its old-growth trees, ancestral species, and marine riches, the islands of Haida Gwaii could be said to embody the natural spirit of Canada’s West Coast. Signs saying “No Tankers” punctuate villages throughout the islands, and for decades their people have been intimately involved with environmental issues involving unusual and rare icons such as the spirit bear, the white raven, and, most famously, the golden spruce.
Sometime last year an American businessman by the name of Russ George (remember that name), completed negotiations with the village of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii to develop a project that would strengthen salmon stocks in the area. The plan was to use iron to fertilize ocean plankton growth—a principal food source for salmon. As plankton has the potential to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, the project was also billed as a “carbon sink”—otherwise known as a means to cash in on carbon credits resulting from plankton going about its business.
As a result, Old Massett voted in favour of funneling $2.5 million from its reserve funds to create the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, a company run by Village of Old Massett economic development officer John Disney in collaboration with George. The plan was that this money was to be repaid as soon as data from the experiment was tabulated and carbon-credit sales could begin.
Fast forward to July, when, and in keeping with the plan, a fishing vessel dumped 100 tonnes of pulverized iron-rich dirt into an eddy over 300 kilometres offshore from Haida Gwaii’s coast (just outside Canada’s territorial boundary and into waters governed by well-intended, but scarcely enforced, international treaties). By all accounts the experiment was wildly successful. The iron—a key nutrient for plankton—precipitated a massive plankton bloom that has since spread to over 10,000 square kilometres, leading Disney to excitedly exclaim that “the results were just spectacular, like we created life where there wasn’t life”. Marine life of all kinds—tuna, salmon, dolphins—could be seen feeding on the plankton, bringing hope to the job-strapped community that the salmon would run once again.
And that’s when things stopped going according to plan. The project wasn’t to be publicized until all the data was analyzed (presumably two years from now, when the juvenile salmon feeding on the plankton would have had a chance to mature), but the U.K. Guardian quickened the plot and broke the story on October 15 in time for COP 11, a major United Nations environmental summit being held in Hyderabad, India. The bloom could be seen from satellite imagery—establishing it as the single largest bioengineering project the world has seen to date—opening the floodgates to questions from the global community. Questions about the science. Questions about the evidence. Questions about who gave permission. And questions about who, exactly, is Russ George.
Cursory investigation shows George is not new to geoengineering schemes nor to controversy. As former CEO of the now defunct Planktos Inc., George was the brains behind two previous large-scale commercial dumps of iron sulphate particles off the Galapagos and Canary Islands. According to the Guardian, these unauthorized dumps failed and resulted in “his vessels being barred from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorean governments.” He was even warned by the U.S. EPA that “flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws”. A simple Google search shows that George has operated under an assortment of business names over the years, ranging from Clustron Science Corp., D2Fusion, Planktos, Diatom, Cold Fusion Future, et cetera. News articles from various sources on his activities, as compiled by New Energy Times, contain intriguing phrases such as “carbon fight”, “unhealthy union”, “sea-seeding plan goes adrift”, “Planktos runs aground”, and “carbon discredit”. In essence, it appears that George’s actions to date have been roundly criticized by various governments as well as his peers, and moreover these actions haven’t always been positively associated with the words “spectacular results”.
Now, this might make one question why a nation like the Haida—who pride themselves on their reputation as environmental stewards—would both support and endorse a project orchestrated by an individual with a slightly less than spotless track record—at least, based on the track record the Internet portrays. That said, an opinion piece authored by George and published in 2007 by the Ottawa Citizen paints a picture of an individual who is well-versed in science with a long history of environmental experience. Enough experience to make one realize that whoever George is, he’s not the one-dimensional antagonist being portrayed by recent articles of late. His piece includes descriptions of working for Greenpeace, developing government policy, and his dedication to and long-standing activities in eco-restoration (including former projects with the Haida). In the letter, George also passionately outlines how he believes red hematite—that is, iron—may offer one of the best possible fixes we have for reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and addressing climate change.
Unfortunately the promise of this latter strategy isn’t yet clear. Iron fertilization has been on the one hand been touted as a potential means to promote marine life and lock carbon into the deep ocean, yet on the other, as an avenue that could very well result in the opposite: lifeless oceans and irreparable ecosystem harm. While there is data and reporting on the potential for plankton to sequester carbon and stimulate fish growth, algal blooms can also create anoxic or oxygen-deprived conditions, resulting in fish kills and contributing to massive lifeless zones (such as what we have already occurring in the Gulf of Mexico due to nutrient inputs from fertilizer and agricultural runoff). And yet another possibility is that the iron catalyzes the formation of toxic algal blooms which can directly contaminate aquatic and even land-based food chains.
As Planetsave succinctly summarizes, “due to the very experimental nature of these ‘iron seeding’ geoengineering schemes — and the very real possibility of unintentional consequences like increased acidification, oxygen depletion, and even toxic plankton blooms – such experiments are limited and generally reserved for scientific research teams. Indeed, the United Nations has recently imposed moratoria to limit the number of such ocean fertilization experiments.”
The Haida Gwaii ocean fertilization experiment has understandably come under intense scrutiny from the global community and raised some very real questions as to how such matters have been and ought to have been handled. Critics have called the experiment a major contravention of the United Nations Law of the Sea and Environment Canada has also publicly said it is aware of and investigating the incident. (Despite these hints of stern regulatory admonishment, the reality is that the experiment happened outside of Canadian territorial jurisdiction, and when it comes to international ocean treaties these tend to be soft-toothed guiding frameworks as opposed to hard-edged disciplinary mechanisms. Nonetheless, international critics have pointed out that the Canadian government does need to speak out and clarify what its knowledge and involvement was in these events.)
Although it is unknown as to the degree to which George and his colleagues anticipated the media firestorm that would ensue from their project—and it is possible all involved felt this could actually be a positive contribution to the science and understanding around ocean processes and climate change mitigation—what sticks is that select individuals took it upon themselves to perform a large-scale action on a collective global resource, with limited understanding of the exact nature of the outcome.
Given the information provided to date, the scale of the gamble taken here is almost breathtaking in its arrogance. One can only hope that this precedent will help evolve the discussions around how and if such projects proceed in the future, in terms of who needs to be involved, what needs to be understood, and who gives permission.
Melissa Felder is a Canadian environmental consultant specializing in energy issues. She has a master’s in bio-resource and chemical engineering from UBC.
Correction: This commentary piece mistakenly described John Disney as an American businessman. The article has been revised to reflect the fact that Disney, who has lived in Old Massett for over 40 years, is the economic development officer for the Village of Old Massett, and that Russ George is the American businessman.