Ocean Iron Fertilization: A Case Study of Geoengineering’s Regulatory Challenges

June 17, 2010
Shobita Parthasarathy, Christopher Avery, Christina Sylvester, Kevin Reed, Arthur Lee-Feldman

Scientists and private companies are increasingly testing the viability of ocean iron fertilization (OIF) as a large-scale climate change mitigation technique, sparking enormous worldwide controversy. This memo argues that before OIF experimentation proceeds further, United States federal and state government agencies must: 1) assess laws, rules, and bureaucratic practices related to reviewing these experiments; 2) ensure that these laws, rules, and bureaucratic practices are adequate to deal with the unique challenges posed by OIF; and 3) require that these laws, rules, and practices cover both small-scale experimentation and large- scale deployment of OIF.

A robust and comprehensive national legal environment is needed to regulate OIF in the US. While OIF regulation is often discussed in terms of international governance, an international approach will not work for the US for two reasons. First, the US is not bound to most relevant international laws regarding OIF. Second, the little international regulation that binds the US is inherently contradictory. Because of the complicated nature of regulation in international waters, any future regulation of OIF will have to navigate both the national and international legal environments. While OIF is often proposed as a viable geoengineering method (Lampitt et al, 2008; Royal Society, 2009), this framing misses critical concerns regarding OIF. The authors make three recommendations to fix these problems: 1) expand the range of expertise currently consulted in the permitting processes; 2) require an additional assessment, an International Impact Assessment, to investigate potential international ramifications of any proposed OIF project; and 3) create a public clearinghouse in the form of a website for all permitting documents to ensure transparency and encourage greater public engagement.

Key findings

  • While OIF regulation is usually discussed in international terms, effective regulation of OIF also requires federal and state level interference in the US. The two reasons for this are because the US is not bound to the relevant international laws, and the few binding international laws are conflicting and hard to enforce.
  • Several questions must be addressed while attempting to translate international regulation to national regulation, including, but not limited to: " How can national laws deal with a technology with international effects?" and "How can OIF regulation be incorporated into existing regulatory structures?"
  • There are two regulatory frameworks that could potentially govern US ocean fertilization: The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (Ocean Dumping Act). These two frameworks are not without flaws, though. 
  • There are three recommendations to ensure that OIF is efficiently regulated. These include expanding the expertise consulted in the permitting process, requiring an international impact assessment for all OIF projects, and creating a public clearinghouse for all permitting documents to ensure transparency.