I’d never heard of Russ George until a couple of days ago. He’s described in various places on the web as a California businessman, as a geoengineer, as a rogue geoengineer, and as a seller of snake oil. He has operated a series of short-lived companies purporting to have products to solve various environmental problems. Over the last several years, when he operated through Planktos Corp. and then through Planktos Science, the product was ocean fertilization for carbon sequestration. The theory goes that adding trace nutrients to the ocean can stimulate phytoplankton growth. The plankton suck up CO2, and when they die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, all that carbon goes with them with the result that it has been more or less permanently removed from the atmosphere. There are carbon credits to be gained if this theory is borne out. Unfortunately, the science that has been done (and there has been a substantial amount of it) suggests that the phytoplankton are broken down and consumed by zooplankton and microbial organisms in the shallower layers of the ocean, and never reach the bottom. The carbon gets passed along through the food webs of the upper ocean and sequestration does not occur. But a smart snake oil salesman can conveniently ignore this science, and that is apparently what Mr. George has been doing. Here is a video of him making a ‘donation’ of carbon credits to the Vatican a few years back; part of his promotional efforts.
Recently though, Mr. George has reinvented himself into a savior of the salmon fishery, has convinced one village in Haida Gwai to form a new company, Haida Salmon Restoration Corp, and borrow to provide it with the $2 million used for his latest scheme – ocean fertilization to produce a phytoplankton bloom that will stimulate biological activity and ultimately improve their catch of salmon. Now, if you think about the number of links between phytoplankton and salmon, and the fact that there are numerous pathways in a complex trophic web, you’ll recognize that claiming that enhancing the abundance of phytoplankton would yield more salmon is quite brave. But I guess when you are used to selling snake oil, switching species is not too difficult. Regrettably, the Haida community has spent $2 million, and I’ll bet they do not see a measurable improvement in their salmon catch.
But that is just the beginning. Mr. George and his crew chartered the largest fishing boat in the area, shipped 100 tonnes of what is now described as a “finely ground dirt-like substance” from Alberta, loaded it aboard the vessel, took it (conveniently) 200 nautical miles out to sea, apparently beyond Canada’s EEZ, and dumped it sometime back in July. What the material, earlier described in news reports as iron sulphate, really is, and where it was obtained from, is not currently publicly known, although it may indeed be iron sulphate. Satellite images reveal a large bloom of phytoplankton covering 10,000 km2 in the area where the dumping took place.
Image of plankton bloom in August 2012. Bloom lies within large blue circle, Haida Gwai is directly to northeast, also circled in blue (image from Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center, downloaded from CBC — http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/10/15/bc-iron-sulfate-dumping-haida-gwaii.html).
The latest twist on this story is that elements of the Canadian government appear to have known about, or may even have tacitly approved this plan. Dumping 100 tonnes of whatever this material was into the ocean contravenes two UN conventions, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention on Dumping of Waste at Sea. John Disney (yes, this does sound a bit Mickey Mouse, doesn’t it), who is the President of Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., reporting to Mr. George, has claimed to the CBC that Canadian government departments from “the [Canada] Revenue Agency down to the National Research Council, and [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and Environment Canada”, and including the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs all knew about the plan. The Guardian reports it has seen correspondence which indicates that Environment Canada officers met with Disney’s company in June and expressed their misgiving about any ocean fertilization going forward, but appear to not have taken further action. (An American contact of mine has just e-mailed me that a DFO colleague of his has just told him that he had heard rumors that such a plan was being talked about, but had no idea it had actually taken place until he read it in The Guardian two days ago.) Environment Canada is refusing comment saying that the incident is currently under investigation. Meanwhile, Mr. George is claiming that the project had significant help from Canadian government departments, and Mr. Disney, who shepherded the project through the Haida village council, has announced that extensive scientific tests are being conducted on the bloom, and that once the results are in and carbon sequestration can be confirmed, the sale of carbon credits will begin, in order to repay the village. In his words, “This is a village project about bringing the fish back and we are going to sequester carbon. It’s like putting compost on your lettuces…. We have tuna, salmon, whales and dolphins. We have had enormous support for this from leading scientists and institutions and we have come up roses. We have created life out there.”
Canada, with its currently sterling record on environmental matters, needs to get to the bottom of this story quickly, and make its findings public. If there has been complicity, there needs to be an explanation. Put aside for a moment the issue of duping the village out of its money with the vague promise of more fish, and let’s just focus on the action out in the ocean. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking proactive measures to counteract CO2 emissions, but there is something fundamentally wrong with undertaking large-scale manipulations of the environment without approvals, without oversight, and, so far as anyone can tell, without a competent team of scientists undertaking the “experiment”. (Of course, this is not science, and for George and Disney to claim so is offensive.) The science on ocean fertilization has so far not been encouraging, although there may be a case for yet more research to establish with more certainty whether or not this is a promising approach to mitigating CO2 emissions. If there is a case, let the science go forward, openly, with competent people in control, with due attention to ecological risks and with necessary permits in place, and without snake oil oozing around everybody’s feet. And if the results confirm, against all current reputable assessments, that this is a viable proactive technique, it can become another tool in our limited toolkit for combatting climate change. Rogue con artists do not have a valid place in this enterprise and should not be able to undertake a scheme as big as this one and get away with it. But then, our oceans are the last frontier – a frontier where we may yet discover how foolish we are becoming.