Australian Company Under Investigation For Renegade Ocean Fertilization: Wired Science

November 10, 2007 at 7:51 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

A NASA photo of the Sulu Sea.

The Ocean Nourishment Corporation is under investigation by the Philippines government for polluting without permission, jeopardizing plans to test a carbon-capturing process that pumps plankton-feeding urea into the ocean — a process the company says could combat climate change, and that critics call dangerous.

ONC was the subject of my recent ocean fertilization article, originally prompted by a press release issued by environmental activist groups. In the PR, they said the Sydney-based company was poised to dump 500 tons of urea into Sulu Sea waters between Malaysia and the Philippines.

Urea is rich in nitrogen, as is runoff from fertilizer and animal waste, which in large quantities can cause toxic plankton blooms and ultimately leave waters lifeless and stripped of oxygen. Five hundred tons, then, seems like a lot — but the number turned out to be wrong.

On Tuesday I talked to Jim Ridley, ONC’s director. He said the next tests would involve about one ton of urea — just enough to produce a bloom with a surface area of several hundred square meters. The 500 ton test wouldn’t happen for a while, probably not until early next year, depending on the results of their recent one-ton Sulu Sea test.

On Wednesday, my article came out; on Thursday, Jim Thomas emailed to ask if the recent test really happened. I didn’t understand why it surprised him — the company was scheduled to present “bottle tests” of treated Sulu Sea water at the upcoming American Geophysical Union meeting.

Apparently activists thought the bottles of water were Sulu Sea samples seeded in lab. The company had, in partnership with two state universities*, filed an application for the upcoming test, but not for an earlier test.

The two government agencies charged with reviewing the application — the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — denied giving ONC a permit.

BFAR, said Jim Thomas, was going to investigate the company.

If they really had injected urea into the sea, they’d broken the law.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund condemned ONC’s anticipated 500-ton dump, which Ridley had explained was really just one ton.

“WWF urges extreme caution in testing this unproven and potentially-risky technology in natural marine ecosystems, especially in critical biodiversity areas such as the Sulu Sea, home to some of our richest fishing grounds and the Tubbataha Reefs, a World Heritage Site,” declared the group on their website.

“The potential environmental impact of dumping 500-tonnes of urea into the sea is just too great … Leaving potential negative impacts to speculation is not only scientifically unsound – it is morally irresponsible,” said Rafael Senga, the WWF’s energy policy coordinator.

The criticisms were echoed by other environmentalists, some of them local. “This technology is dangerous and unacceptable because it could imperil our marine environment — the main source of survival and livelihood for poor fisherfolk in the Philippines,” said Rubert Aleroza, chair of a fisherman’s group worried about toxic algae and red tides.

But while concerns about toxic algae are valid, they’ve got a somewhat hysterical undertone. Caution is warranted — but should urea fertilization be considered a priori unacceptable? Is it impossible to do safely? Are the perils so grave as block any sort of testing?

At some point, the Ocean Nourishment Corporation needs to test their process in the real world. We can’t fully — or even partly — understand urea fertilization until that happens. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, we still might learn something useful in the process.

Also, messing with an ocean patch the size of a city neighborhood isn’t going to break the whole system. The urea injections are a one-time thing, and tests can be halted if something goes wrong.

That’s what BFAR director Malcolm Sarmiento told ONC when they submitted their application earlier this fall.

“It is advised that while doing the experimental process, a close monitoring on dominant plankton cell density as well as presence of harmful species should be carefully observed,” wrote Sarmiento. “In an unlikely event, the process should be immediately suspended.”

The project doesn’t need to be stopped — just carefully watched. There are good scientists working with ONC; they’ve been researching this for a decade.

The Philippines government, in consultation with its own scientific advisors and hopefully those from the International Maritime Organization, can decide where the test should take place.

They can pick a safe spot, give some pointers, make sure that ONC’s scientists are measuring the right things — the types of plankton produced, nearby effects, and so on. Maybe they can even figure out some way of determining whether the plankton blooms will be felt up the food chain, providing more fish to the local fishermen — something ONC expects to happen, though their anticipated studies aren’t designed to measure this.

(Of course, they can punish ONC if the company broke the law; that’s only fair. And the government can also decide to forbid the tests. But I’d like to think that they’d wait for a bit more data.)

ONC is far from realizing its goal of licensing plans to building gas-burning factores that produce urea that is injected, in bulk, day after for years, into large areas of the sea. Whether that goal is a good thing, or a bad thing, or a total waste of time, isn’t yet known.

The company’s marketing has certainly outpaced its science, and there’s a danger of commercial haste producing bad science, overestimations of benefits and overlooked risks that, multiplied commercially in a few years time, could cause harm to people and environment. For that reason, the Ocean Nourishment Corporation — and Planktos and Climos and every other band of industrial sea farmers — ought to be regulated.

But that doesn’t mean ocean fertilization should be stopped forever, or ONC turned into a pariah. If fertilization works, it could help combat climate change. The research will generate valuable knowledge of ocean ecosystems.

And there’s nothing wrong with trying to turn carbon capture into a business. If it doesn’t hurt anyone, commerce is a good thing. Commercial haste can produce error, but so can fear and dogma.(Brandon Keim)

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