“There’s a ruckus going on over an experiment in ocean fertilization conducted off the coast of British Columbia…”
October 18, 2012 by Ted Parson
There’s a ruckus going on over an experiment in ocean fertilization conducted off the coast of British Columbia in July and disclosed this week. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, an enterprise of the Haida village of Old Massett, used a large fishing vessel to spread 100 tons of iron sulfate-rich dust on the ocean surface west of Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlotte Islands). The aim of the release was to increase plankton growth and thereby promote growth of fisheries and maybe also remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Such interventions exist in a near legal vacuum. Critics of the Old Massett Haida project are claiming it violates international law, but this is simply not true.
Mainly due to vigorous lobbying by a couple of small NGOs (the same ones now outraged at the Haida project), parties to the CBD have adopted two decisions discouraging ocean fertilization, and geoengineering generally. But these are purely advisory – and are moreover so clumsily drafted that even if they were legally binding (which they are not), their operational meaning would be utterly opaque. To check for yourself, you can read the most relevant decision here.
Oddly, the more interesting question about this particular experiment is whether it violated any applicable Canadian law. On this, everyone is busily in damage-control mode: the project operator says they kept all relevant officials informed throughout development of the project; their opponents are saying they clearly broke multiple laws; and Environment Canada is saying the matter is under investigation. I’d like to be a fly on that wall.
The second nasty challenge about potential legal/political control over geoengineering that this project raises concerns the fuzziness of scale boundaries. This little dump – and yes, it is little – elicited howls of outrage out of proportion to its actual impact, and to the non-reaction to many other commonplace activities with impacts as big or bigger. This is because, by calling this “geoengineering”, it attains a status of precedent, symbol – the thin end of the wedge. Opponents of ever doing geoengineering on a large scale think it’s important to stop even small things that look like geoengineering.