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Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Don't dump lye off the New England coast

Dangerous experiment

JULIA CONLEY for Common Dreams

Biodiversity advocates called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject a new geoengineering project spearheaded by researchers in Massachusetts that one critic said would do "nothing to solve the root causes of the climate crisis and instead puts at risk the oceans' natural capacity to absorb carbon and their role in sustaining life on Earth."

Friends of the Earth (FOE) and other groups warned that an experiment called LOC-NESS by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) carries "potentially catastrophic risks" for the Atlantic Ocean, where researchers have proposed dumping more than 60,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide near Cape Cod to test a "carbon dioxide removal approach" called Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement (OAE).

WHOI's website states that the experiment would involve the release of "nontoxic, fluorescent Rhodamine WT dye into the ocean from a research ship," with researchers tracking the dye's movement over 72 hours in order to determine whether the ocean's alkalinity could be enhanced.

If so, the scientists say, they could ultimately help to regulate atmospheric carbon.

The EPA's notice about the proposed study from last month, however, says that the project "would involve a controlled release of a sodium hydroxide solution"—which is "essentially lye, a substance known to cause chemical burns and one that must be handled with great care," according to Tom Goldtooth, co-founder and member of the board of directors of the national Climate Justice Alliance.

"Altering the chemical composition of the ocean under the guise of increasing its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide is misleading and dangerous," said Goldtooth. "An experiment centered on introducing this caustic substance into the sea should not be permitted... The geoengineering approach puts Earth's systems at risk in a faulty and false bid toward solving the climate crisis. It is what we call a false solution."

Friends of the Earth pointed out that WHOI's permit application to the EPA acknowledges that after changing the ocean's alkalinity, the researchers "have no direct way of measuring how much carbon dioxide will be removed by the experiment."

"The production of alkaline materials is extremely energy-intensive, releasing similar or even higher levels of greenhouse gasses than they remove upon being dumped into the ocean," said the group. "The researchers have declined to analyze how much carbon dioxide was released in the production, transportation, and dumping of the sodium hydroxide, making it impossible to know whether the technology even reduces greenhouse gas emissions."

Despite these lingering questions, said FOE, the EPA has issued tentative approval for a permit for the experiment, with a public comment period open until July 1.

The caustic sodium hydroxide solution the researchers plan to use, warns FOE, "causes chemical burns upon contact with skin or marine animals, setting the stage for potentially extreme damage to local ecosystems."

Benjamin Day, FOE's senior campaigner for its Climate and Energy Justice Program, said the group "unequivocally" opposes the LOC-NESS geoengineering experiment in the fragile ecosystem off the coast of Cape Cod.

"It's astonishing that the EPA is even considering allowing dangerous, caustic chemicals to be dumped in ocean waters that are frequented by at least eight endangered species, including right whales and leatherback turtles," said Day.

Mary Church, geoengineering campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law, said "speculative technologies" like OAE are "a dangerous distraction from the real solutions to the climate crisis," which scientists around the world agree requires a rapid reduction in planet-heating fossil fuel emissions through a large-scale shift to renewable energy sources.

"Marine geoengineering does nothing to solve the root causes of the climate crisis and instead puts at risk the oceans' natural capacity to absorb carbon and their role in sustaining life on Earth," said Church. "Outdoor experiments could not only cause immediate harm to marine life, but are also a slippery slope to potentially catastrophic impacts of large-scale deployment."

United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has placed a moratorium on geoengineering techniques like OAE until there is "adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic, and cultural impacts."