Norway sinks ocean carbon study

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Pressure from environmental groups looks set to scupper an international research team's attempt to test the feasibility of sequestrating large volumes of carbon dioxide in the ocean.

The Norwegian government has intervened to block the proposed release of 5 tonnes of liquefied CO2 off its coast. Three months ago, the researchers' plan to carry out the same experiment on a larger scale near Hawaii was abandoned in the face of environmental objections (see Nature 417, 888; 200210.1038/417888b).

Now the team — which includes engineers, oceanographers and ecologists from the United States, Norway, Japan and Canada — is running out of options and may have to abandon the idea altogether. That would be a major blow to global efforts to pursue oceanic carbon sequestration as a possible response to global warming — and a big victory for green groups, some of whom regard sequestration as a diversion from the need to cut CO2 emissions.

The scientists had planned to release the CO2 at a depth of 800 metres, and monitor its impact on the Norwegian Sea, to investigate whether the ocean could absorb much larger volumes of CO2 from power plants, for example.

A permit for the experiment was granted by the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority on 5 July. But Børge Brende, the Conservative Party environment minister in Norway's coalition government, decided to review the authority's decision after protests from Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The ministry announced on 22 August that the project would not go ahead.

“We think it should be researched and a decision made on the science,” complains one of the researchers, Eric Adams, a hydrodynamicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is politics meddling with science,” he says.

The pressure groups argued that the experiment would contravene ocean-pollution treaties. They also object to any large-scale release of CO2 into the oceans, claiming that it could damage marine ecosystems and would eventually leak back to the atmosphere. Researchers counter that the experiment was designed precisely to investigate whether such fears are justified.

The team is considering what to do next. Adams says they could do the work quite legally in international waters, although most are too deep for this study. The second delay has also complicated matters with the project's funders, as the original time-frame for the experiment has now expired.

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Giles, J. Norway sinks ocean carbon study. Nature 419, 6 (2002) doi:10.1038/419006b

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