"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sailing into hot water in the Pacific

It's likely that most folks wouldn't have heard of the controversial idea of seeding water with iron filings (to boost the growth of plankton, thus helping feed fish and also capturing carbon) until the recent news about the scheme involving the waters around Haida Gwaii.
However, I wrote about this fascinating issue in one of the last pieces I filed for the now-defunct Western Standard in the summer of 2007. Here's the text, as I submitted it to the editor:


Pumping up Pacific plankton

By Terry O’Neill

Canwest News Service photo of Haida Gwaii
Somewhere off the shores of the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, a lowly phytoplankton needs a boost of iron. But, according to Planktos Corp. of San Francisco, plankton living in this environmentally important area of the sea can’t get enough of their daily iron dose, a problem that’s causing the population of the minuscule sea organism to collapse, adversely effecting all sea life in turn. But Planktos, a publicly traded company that employs controversial Vancouver financier Nelson Skalbania, has a solution: dump 45 tons of iron filings into the ocean, thus not only pumping up the carbon-dioxide-gobbling phytoplankton but also reducing global warming in the process.

Save the seas and cut global warming at the same time? Planktos says it’s feasible, but its plan hinges on eco-sensitive corporations, individuals and governments paying the company to spread the iron dust in the ocean to offset their greenhouse-gas producing activities elsewhere. But while the company and its European subsidiary, KlimaFa (which specializes in reforestation), churn out press releases promoting their carbon-offset work, critics say the company’s science and business plan are both questionable.

Shares of the company were trading on the risky OTC Bulletin Board in the (US) $1.30 range in mid-July, compared to eight cents last fall. Critics have noted that Skalbania was charged in 1997 and ultimately found guilty of stealing $100,000 from an investor. He was also involved in several stock-market ventures of dubious integrity.

The centerpiece of Planktos’ activities is a ship called the Weatherbird II, which sailed from Washington, D.C. last spring but by mid-summer was still in Florida taking on 10 tons of iron, along with supplies and scientific equipment to ready itself its test-run “voyage of recovery” to the South Pacific. “Our real goal this year, more than any of the business experiments,” spokesman David Kubiak says, “is to try to get some public awareness, to put plankton right up their with penguins and polar bears, the poster kids of planetary distress.”

Stirring words, but they’re largely falling on deaf ears among environmentalists. "This is an irresponsible and unpredictable venture by purely profit-driven individuals," Elizabeth Bravo, of Accion Ecologica of Ecuador, said earlier this year. "It threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk and it should be stopped."

Nevertheless, the acting leader of the B.C. Green Party, Christopher Bennett, says he is intrigued by the Planktos plan. “My gut reaction is that polluting the ocean can’t be the way to clean the ocean or the planet,” he says. “But I’m open to new ideas.” In the meantime, he’s calling for the formation of a voluntary association to assess all companies’ environmental claims.

“Based on my own experience over the last two to three years,” says the former corporate public-relations consultant, “30-40 per cent of businesses are making claims about their environmental record that are false, that are probably not entirely accurate at all.”

Will Planktos end up in this group? Only the plankton know for sure.

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