Informational Backgrounder on the 2012 Haida Gwaii Iron Dump

27 March 2013

Note: for full links to other materials on this incident please see this page

 

The Prehistory

Almost six years ago, ETC Group blew the whistle on a commercial geoengineering outfit called Planktos, Inc., which was making its way down the Potomac in a freshly equipped research ship en route to dump 100 tons of iron nanoparticles into the waters of the Galapagos Islands. Planktos hoped to create a plankton bloom using ‘ocean fertilization,’ a geoengineering technique intended to sequester carbon in the deep sea. The big idea was to sell carbon credits in a scheme that Russ George, CEO of Planktos called “more of a business experiment than a scientific experiment.” Over the course of a frenetic few weeks back in 2007, ETC Group coordinated with allies in Ecuador, USA, Europe and New Zealand to track and counter Planktos’s high seas geoengineering gambit. The Ecuadorian government and the Galapagos National Park issued warnings against Planktos, as did the US Environmental Protection Agency; the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, known for sinking whaling ships, vowed to stop the boat; the International Maritime Organization’s London Convention on Ocean Dumping issued a statement of concern that ultimately was parlayed into a moratorium on ocean fertilization – the first intergovernmental action against geoengineering. The ship itself was shadowed from Florida to Bermuda to Spain to the Canary Islands until Planktos ran out of funds, sank into bankruptcy and suspended operations indefinitely, blaming “a highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.” 

Planktos Resurfaces

On October 9, 2012, two ETC Group staff members attending a meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Hyderabad, India, were working to defend that treaty’s moratorium on geoengineering  when they heard a rumour of a large geoengineering deployment in Canada. Friends from international civil society had seen internal Canadian government emails suggesting that a large ocean fertilization dump of iron had taken place near the islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Documents archived by an indigenous charitable trust and available online seemed to confirm that a newly-formed company, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC)  – with the CEO of Planktos, Russ George, as both its Chief Scientist and Chair of the Board – had been granted funding (totaling more than $2.5 million) for a project to fertilize the ocean, with the intent of selling carbon credits and increasing the wild Pacific salmon population. HSRC emphasized the indigenous pedigree of the project, characterizing it as a Haida Village Council undertaking. ETC Group contacted the Council of the Haida Nation – the de facto 'government' of the Haida people – who said a dump of iron had indeed allegedly taken place and had reportedly given rise to a plankton bloom, but that the Haida communities had been misled as to the risks and international legal status of such activities. The communities had been told they would earn carbon credits from the dump (a highly unlikely outcome since commercial ocean fertilization is prohibited under international agreements – indeed subsequent investigations by the Vancouver Sun revealed that there were no carbon credits ). Guujaaw, then-President of the Haida Nation, explained to ETC by phone: “The people of Old Massett were promised this was a salmon restoration scheme and wouldn’t have supported it if they had known of any possible negative effect.”

ETC Group then contacted international press outlets to alert them; the UK’s Guardian newspaper quickly launched an investigation. The phone transcripts of that investigation by reporter Martin Lukacs (later archived online here) reveal that not only had a dump occurred in July 2012 involving more than 100 metric tons of iron sulphate particles (purportedly prompting a 10,000 km2 plankton bloom), but also that HSRC claimed to be working with officials from the Canadian government and to have US government support in the form of monitoring equipment on-loan from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Chief Scientist Russ George boasted that the Village of Old Massett had used Haida sovereignty claims to set up its own “permitting system” so as to avoid applying for a permit from the Canadian government. Later, on CBC Radio’s current affairs programme, As It Happens, Haida Chief Guujaaw called the notion that a village band council could issue a geoengineering permit outside of Canadian law “ludicrous.”

ETC Group contacted leading oceanographers, all of whom were deeply concerned when they learned what had taken place in the Haida Eddy of the north-east Pacific Ocean; they found satellite evidence from August of an unusually large plankton bloom at that location.[1] International legal experts at the UN meeting in Hyderabad confirmed to ETC Group that the dump would be a breach of both the London Convention moratorium on ocean fertilization and the two moratoria on ocean fertilization and geoengineering established at the CBD.

On Monday October 15, an article in the Guardian revealed the “world’s biggest” geoengineering scheme; the effect in Canada and beyond was immediate. For the next week, ETC Group’s Jim Thomas fielded calls and held back-to-back interviews with media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Nature to CBC, Le Monde, CTV, Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail and others (for a full list of media reporting see here). On the same day the Guardian story appeared, CBC’s flagship news programme As It Happens  covered the story. Unusually, the radio show also led with the Haida story the following day, interviewing HSRC’s President and Village of Old Massett Economic Development Officer John Disney, and then again the following day. As It Happens also covered the story a fourth time in a follow-up piece, revisiting some of HSRC’s claims – including the claim that seven different federal agencies were apprised of and/or involved in the dump – which had been refuted by others.

The Canadian government then released a statement from the press officer to Environment Minister Peter Kent explaining that they regarded dumping of iron without a permit to be illegal and, if the Haida Gwaii dump had indeed occurred, full enforcement action would be taken, including prosecution. Geoengineering advocates in academia worried that HSRC was giving geoengineering and ocean fertilization in particular “a bad name.” 

Hijack in Haida Gwaii

Meanwhile, concern on Haida Gwaii was growing, especially in response to claims by HSRC that they had ‘created life’  in an otherwise lifeless ocean. Local fisherman contacted ETC Group to testify to the rich diversity of the area that was fertilized, and marine scientists said it was the worst possible place to conduct such an experiment since that patch of ocean was already teeming with life.[2] By Thursday October 18, the Haida Nation had explicitly distanced itself from HSRC and condemned the dump. The Council of Hereditary Chiefs and the Council of the Haida Nation issued a statement clarifying they had nothing to do with HSRC’s activities and asserted, “The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment. Our people, along with the rest of humanity, depend on the oceans and cannot leave the fate of the oceans to the whim of the few.” In a parallel move, The Council of the Haida Nation instituted new governance rules that would prevent such unilateral action in the future.

Trying vainly to seize the narrative, HSRC and its lawyers organized a press conference at Vancouver Aquarium, five days after the Guardian article first appeared. ETC learned informally that Old Massett chief Ken Rea (who had approved the scheme) attempted to get other First Nation leaders to support him at the conference; however, none turned up. Over 70 members of the international press did turn up. In front of a barrage of reporters and cameras, Disney and Rea stood together on stage insisting that Russ George had not misled them and that they had faith in the science of their ocean fertilization dump. Their science was then challenged by university-based oceanographers in attendance, such as Maite Maldonado Associate Professor in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia. “Where is Russ George?” asked several reporters hoping to catch a glimpse of the now infamous ‘rogue geoengineer.’ “He’s busy analyzing the data” came the unconvincing reply.  [listen to the full press conference and also access transcripts here.)

Back at the UN

Meanwhile at the meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, several countries proposed strengthening the geoengineering moratorium; however, a small band of Northern countries, led by the ‘four horsemen’ of geoengineering (UK, USA, Canada and Australia)  prevented consensus on an outright ban. In the end, the existing moratorium was reaffirmed. Two days after the Haida Gwaii dump story broke, the coalition of CSOs known as the CBD Alliance held an award ceremony in which Canada was awarded the ignominious ‘dodo award’ for activities that harm biodiversity – both for its obstructive stance in the negotiations and for failing to stop the HSRC dump in the first place (it had become public that officials knew about plans for the dump, but seemingly only warned HSRC by giving them informational leaflets – they didn’t take any enforcement measures). The International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity reiterated its existing support for a full ban on geoengineering.

Lessons

Regrettably, the world’s biggest geoengineering scheme was deployed in July 2012 quietly, without oversight, to be discovered by the rest of the world only months later. In the years since 2007, “rogue geoengineers” have learned how to operate completely under the radar. Almost two weeks after the Guardian revealed the iron dump off Haida Gwaii, a nearby patch of water marked the epicentre of Canada’s strongest earthquake in more than 60 years. As Haida villagers headed for the hills amid tsunami warnings, they were still experiencing the aftershocks of the media storm of the previous fortnight. Two emergency local meetings had reportedly turned into acrimonious exchanges; the local paper, the QCI Observer, published a blistering editorial against HSRC backed up by angry local letter writers. In March 2013, ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney travelled to Haida Gwaii, giving two public talks on ocean fertilization and geoengineering. Although HSRC refused to answer requests for a meeting, they mailed a letter to many residents attacking ETC Group. In those meetings we learned that HSRC had announced in public meetings that they still intend to carry out further dumps, and Haida Gwaii residents understood that they may still have funds available to do so.

HSRC appears to have largely stopped answering media calls unless journalists agree to certain conditions. Meanwhile the story rumbles on internationally. In London, the 34th meeting of the London Convention opened with countries questioning Canada for its inaction and Canada asserting, in both London and via a parliamentary question in Ottawa, that they will pursue and likely prosecute those responsible for the dump. Canada also used the experience to push for a binding “control and regulatory regime” for ocean geoengineering under the London Convention, and, on the last day of their meeting, the States at the London Convention issued a statement of “grave concern” about the Haida Gwaii dump. The head of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission expressed similar concern and a few months later a high profile report on emerging global risks by the World Economic Forum listed HSRC’s iron dump as indicative of a brand new threat to the planet: rogue geoengineering. 

The longer-term impact of the dump is yet to be weighed, especially in Canada. So far no one has been prosecuted, and the Canadian government hasn’t fully explained why it didn’t stop HSRC before the dump occurred. At least one other Canadian geoengineer, Dr. David Keith, says he is hoping to carry out a geoengineering experiment soon. The environmental impact of the Haida Gwaii dump may never be known. Unprecedented incidences of toxic algae blooms across the winter period of 2012/2013 led to local shellfish beds being closed on Haida Gwaii but without good scientific monitoring it’s difficult to know if there is any connection to the earlier iron dump. In a prominent opinion piece in The New York Times, activist Naomi Klein raised the concern that, intentionally or otherwise, the dump might have proved an excellent “testing of the waters” (both literally and figuratively) for those in government wondering if they can ride out public concern and move ahead with geoengineering. Ominously, she concludes, “judging by the muted response so far, the results of Mr. George’s test are clear: geoengineers proceed, caution be damned.”

 

[1] ETC Group initially contacted Professor Penny Chisholm of MIT and Professor John Cullen of Dalhousie University who confirmed the existence of a bloom on satellite records but cautioned against over-interpreting the bloom as necessarily the result of HSRC’s activity.

[2] For example, oceanographer Charles B Miller who had authored a textbook featuring the Haida Eddy on its front cover explained to ETC Group: “There must naturally be quite abundant iron there, relative to the Gulf Alaska well offshore. It would be the perfect place to put iron to guarantee your patch would have more chlorophyll than the surrounding waters. In fact, it probably would be impossible to show that anything different from a natural bloom was caused by your iron delivery.”

 

 

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HSRC's ocean fertilization dump claimed to dump over 100 tonnes of iron into the pacific prompting a 10,000 square km plankton bloom visible from space