Dumping Iron and Trading Carbon: Profits, Pollution, and Politics All Will Play Roles in Ocean Iron Fertilization

By Powell, Hugh | Oceanus, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Dumping Iron and Trading Carbon: Profits, Pollution, and Politics All Will Play Roles in Ocean Iron Fertilization


Powell, Hugh, Oceanus


Debating the idea of fertilizing the ocean with iron can feel a little like riding a seesaw.

On the up side is iron's eye-catching potential to set off enormous plankton blooms, triggering large reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide. But further investigation reveals that marine ecosystems tenaciously recycle much of the carbon back into the air, rather than sequestering it in the deep ocean. Other inefficiencies and damaging side effects cut enthusiasm even more. Fertilizing the vast tracts of ocean required would be hard to achieve, making the prospect even less attractive.

But the bottom line is buffered by an equally powerful number: the value of avoided carbon emissions. In some carbon markets, it hovers today around about $75 per ton of carbon (the equivalent of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide), but with the future likely to bring warming climate, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, and shifting rainfall patterns, that price is likely to increase as climate treaties mandate even stricter caps on emissions and governments institute taxes or economic incentives to reduce emissions.

That incentive will draw the interest of entrepreneurs. So even if iron fertilization isn't profitable now, it may be in coming decades. If so, several questions remain: How will fertilization schemes be regulated and how soon are they likely to become profitable? At an ocean iron fertilization conference convened at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in September 2007, economists and lawyers offered their advice.

The law

Since iron fertilization will likely happen outside of any single country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, regulation will fall under international law, said David Freestone of the World Bank. Among international treaties that concern the sea, the 1972 London Convention promotes the effective control of all sources of marine pollution and governs the deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter for its 82 parties. A separate agreement, the 1996 London Protocol, modernized and updated the London Convention and eventually will replace it. Under the Protocol, all dumping is prohibited except for a few specified wastes. (A 2006 amendment, for example, specifically permits, but regulates, disposal of carbon dioxide from industrial carbon-capture processes into sub-seabed geological formations.)

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Iron fertilization is not strictly dumping under the definition of the London Convention and Protocol, Freestone said, because disposal of the iron is not the project's expressed purpose. However, fertilization may qualify as dumping if the treaty nations decide that such projects contravene the treaties' aims. In the Southern Ocean the legal picture is further complicated by strict laws designed to protect Antarctica, Freestone said, citing the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and its 1991 Madrid Environmental Protocol, as well as the 1980 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

In any case, international treaties rely on the individual nations that sign the treaties to implement them, Freestone said. It is not unknown for entities seeking to skirt a treaty to register their ships in a nation that is not a party to the treaty or doesn't strongly enforce its requirements.

In the United States, the London Convention is implemented by the Ocean Dumping Act, Elizabeth Kim, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Ocean Dumping Management Program, told participants at the WHOI conference. The act governs ocean dumping of material transported from the United States; transported inside U.S. waters from outside the U.S.; and by U.S. agencies and U.S.-flagged vessels or aircraft. EPA can issue permits to dump--after careful evaluation of the need for the dumping, potential dumping sites, and the potential impacts of the dumping on the environment and other "values and uses of the ocean. …

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Dumping Iron and Trading Carbon: Profits, Pollution, and Politics All Will Play Roles in Ocean Iron Fertilization
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