Pollution Absolution

A company is dumping questionable materials into the ocean so that you can buy forgiveness in the form of carbon credits

Leave it to the Vatican to place itself on the wrong side of yet another great moral divide.

In 1517 Pope Leo X offered indulgences in exchange for donations to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica.

This July, the Holy See announced it would become the first fully green sovereign state by accepting a donation of “carbon credits” from a subsidiary of Planktos, a Foster City firm hoping to profit from the global market in CO2 offsets — the scheme whereby companies, individuals, and now nations can buy forgiveness for their global warming sins.

“As president of the Pontifical Council of Culture, I am honored to receive this donation from the leaders of Planktos-KlimaFa,” said Cardinal Paul Poupard on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI during a recent carbon-credit presentation ceremony, according to the Planktos Web site. (A message left for the press attaché at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., hadn't been returned by press time.)

Planktos says it plans to plant trees in Hungary to offset any pollution the Vatican produces in Rome. But this papally blessed publicity stunt seems designed to provide a PR benefit for Planktos' main line of business, which involves making money by dumping — perhaps illegally — hundreds of tons of iron ore into the sea.

So just like Leo X's absolution peddling scheme a half-millennium ago, the pontiff has set his church up to look morally ridiculous.

The Vatican's favored carbon-credit firm happens to be a global symbol for the bogusness of the worldwide concept of environmental forgiveness, by which polluters offset their effect on the planet by paying for projects that supposedly cut down on carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere.

The Bay Area is a hotbed of businesses seeking to profit from selling “CO2 offsets” — whereby you pay someone else to suck some carbon dioxide out of the air as a counterweight to your own pollution.

This logic means that if you go to www.planktos.com and charge $50 on your credit card, you might be able to light your yard with arc-welders and still be blessed as green.

Planktos' rationale is like other popular environmental self-deceptions — such as “It's OK to drive and park everywhere if I'm in a Prius” or “It's OK to protest infill apartment development if I buy organic” — that allow people to fool themselves into thinking they can stop harming the planet without changing the way they live.

The idea of a market solution to environmental problems seems reasonable on its face; commercial enterprise provides us with most of the goods and services we consume. This is the idea behind the Kyoto Protocol, the scheme of tradable polluting permits, which can be earned by financing anti-global warming projects. The U.S. is not affected by the protocol, which is part of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change that President Bush abstained from. But voluntary, Al Gore-style carbon absolutions are becoming more popular by the day here, especially along the Hollywood-Marin nexus.

But like the Pope's for-profit indulgences of 1517, carbon-credit absolutions are a heresy to good judgment in several respects.

There's no fully transparent and regulated market for carbon credits, despite the nominal trading framework set up by the Kyoto Protocol. The incentive to exaggerate the efficacy, newness, and even existence of climate-cooling projects is enormous, given the reputed 100 million-euros-per-day Kyoto treaty market in carbon credits. So buyers risk being fooled.

Worse for the environment is the apparently insufficient scientific scrutiny given to for-profit projects set up to make people believe they're paying to reduce climate change. This means companies can launch supposedly planet-cooling schemes that may actually harm the environment. Planktos, it so happens, is a big fish in this sea.

Planktos has made itself into a pariah among environmentalists, natural scientists, and anti-pollution regulators for a scheme to haul a shipload of iron ore to the Pacific Ocean near the Galápagos Islands, then spread it like fertilizer by navigating the ship back and forth while unloading its cargo. The idea is to create a vast bloom of iron-hungry phytoplankton, microscopic plants that absorb carbon dioxide, and thus theoretically reduce the amount of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere.

However, groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.N.-chartered International Maritime Organization have indicated skepticism about this scheme's alleged environmental benefits.

They fear dumping iron into the ocean might have an environmental effect analogous to pouring phosphate detergent into a freshwater stream to create a bloom for phosphorous-hungry algae. In each case, the addition of foreign nutrients to an ecosystem can cause some species to flourish briefly at the expense of other life.

“I think it's certainly a bad notion,” said WWF marine biologist Jennie Hoffman. “We don't know if this would create a dead zone in the sea, or make more greenhouse gases. These are huge fundamental unknowns. And it will take a long time to resolve them. So we need to focus our energies on actions that we know will reduce greenhouse gases.”

A recent article in the British magazine New Scientist, meanwhile, explained that a preponderance of scientists believe Planktos' scheme is scientifically questionable, or even unsound.

Planktos CEO Russ George told me last week that the ship his company owns, the WeatherBird II, has been sitting at a dock in Florida waiting for the criticism storm to pass. The EPA recently sent George a letter telling him his dumping project may require special EPA permission. The EPA also submitted a report to the International Marine Organization, warning that Planktos' plans could cause environmental harm.

“This project, which involves a significant amount of iron in a large area of the ocean, should be evaluated carefully for potential environmental impacts, including potential impacts of any harmful algae blooms that are produced and potential impacts of changes to the marine system,” EPA anti-ocean dumping regulator Elizabeth Kim told me last week in a statement. “The United States regulates ocean dumping of material transported from the United States, and ocean dumping by U.S.-flagged vessels; neither may occur without a permit issued by the EPA under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act.”

George told me that when he spoke with Kim, he interpreted her explanation of the EPA's legal authority as advice on how to evade U.S. environmental regulations.

“We're good businesspeople, and we'll make some decision. The EPA has suggested to us that if we're not under the flag of a U.S. vessel, we're not subject to U.S. regulations. So if we were to register under a vessel that wasn't in the U.S., we wouldn't be regulated by the EPA,” George said, adding that a shipping broker is now working on his behalf to hire a non-U.S.-flagged vessel.

George is also seeking bids from iron ore suppliers from outside the United States, which would allow him to skirt rules requiring environmental permits for dumping U.S. material into the sea.

Hoffman told me marine biologists are also worried that Planktos may dump other contaminants along with its iron ore, a problem that's impossible to assess unless one knows where, exactly, the iron is coming from, and which possibly contaminated cargo hold it's going to be dumped out of. George refused to tell me the source of his ore, or which ship he'd use, explaining that this information would give possible competitors a leg up.

If plans to use foreign-flagged vessels and offshore iron ore don't work, George said, he'll get around environmental regulations another way.

“If it turns out we're going to have to go through a long EPA process, maybe we'll just shift and do it out of our Budapest office,” George explained.

And so it came to pass that by evading environmental regulations and potentially upsetting the ecological balance of the ocean, Planktos promised to deliver others from their planet-killing sins.

Planktos begat guiltless Hummer-drivers.

“A large pick-up or SUV gets only 10-18 mpg and is responsible for 10 tons of CO2 emissions per year, which can be zeroed for $50,” sayeth the retail shopping section of www.planktos.com.

For $100, Planktos absolved sinners from heating, cooling, lighting, watering lawns, and running hot water in a large house for a year.

And Planktos bestowed forgiveness upon event planners.

“Meetings, conferences, weddings, or classrooms, you can green them all. Just fill out the form below,” sayeth www.planktos.com.

After all, the Holy See's apparent participation in Russ George's publicity stunt would lead us to believe that if Planktos can absolve the Vatican of its trespasses, it can certainly help forgive you and me.

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