Absorbing CO2 by Dumping Urea Into Ocean Pisses Off Activists

The Philippines government has approved an Australian company’s plan to absorb excess CO2 by dumping massive amounts of urea in the Sulu Sea. Environmental activists say the dumping is a potentially risky, scientifically unsound gamble that underscores the dangerous absence of international geoengineering regulations.

Like iron seeding, urea dumping is supposed to nourish blooms of greenhouse gas-gobbling plankton. But iron seeding is controversial, with some scientists saying it might produce even more CO2 — and compared to urea dumping, iron seeding is well understood.

According to a statement issued by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, UK-based Corporate Watch, Malaysia-based Third World Network and the Philippines’ SEARICE,

Urea and nitrogen fertilizer pollution caused by agricultural run-off has been linked to the creation of toxic algal blooms in the scientific literature, and raises the possibility of dead zones from oxygen depletion.

The groups called for regulators currently meeting to discuss the London Convention to evaluate urea dumping as well as iron seeding. The Convention, enacted by the International Maritime Organization in 1972, prohibits oceanic waste dumping — but while simply pouring urea into the sea would be illegal, doing so to absorb carbon dioxide is permitted, or at least not forbidden.

That regulatory loophole is symbolic of the general absence of international guidelines for large-scale climate modification projects, both at sea and on land; and Sulu Sea urea dumping, proposed by the Ocean Nourishment Corporation and planned in the future for Malaysia, Chile and the United Arab Emirates, is symbolic of projects that are only going to become more common as climate change and entrepreneurship collide.

I’ve written a lot about geoengineering on WiSci, so check those posts out to learn more about the issues. The bottom line: geoengineering could work, and if the worst-case climate scenarios become more probable, we might need it. But there are enough question marks and potential problems to demand that humanity do it as wisely as possible.

Pissing for Profit in the Pacific [Press Release]