Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Fear of carbon
dioxide stalls
ocean experiment

The test would gauge how
the sea absorbs a
common greenhouse gas

By Pat Omandam

In the 1950s, Donald Cataluna took a summer job at the University of Hawaii to test new chemicals being developed by the U.S. Army to kill brush.

One solution, which Cataluna remembers mixing by hand, was named Esteron 10-10, and it proved very effective in killing the thick brush, recalled the Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.

"Years later with Vietnam, that chemical was known as Agent Orange," he said. "But nobody knew, right?"

It is the unknown that weighs heavily on Cataluna's mind today as he opposes an ocean experiment in which carbon dioxide would be pumped into deep ocean waters near Hawaii to test whether it would be an effective way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which scientists say is the primary cause of global warming.

The experiment is known as carbon dioxide ocean sequestration. The test was originally set for last year at Keahole, Hawaii, where carbon dioxide would have been piped to a deep ocean site. But opposition scrapped that location.

Now, three other offshore sites in Hawaii are being considered, but no decision has been made. Instead of a pipeline, plans are for liquefied carbon dioxide to be pumped into the deep ocean from a ship.

The Pacific International Center for High Technology Research in Honolulu is conducting the project from a grant awarded by the United States, Japan and Norway, said project manager Gerard Nihous.


Nihous said the experiment was to have taken place this fall but has been pushed back until 2002 because of complications of picking a site. The project's 18-member international committee must decide from three sites approved by the U.S. Department of Energy: 8.5 miles off Barbers Point, Oahu; four miles off Nawilwili Harbor, Kauai; or 12 miles north of Keahole Point.

A fourth location is being considered in the Gulf of Mexico. Nihous said it is more of an "insurance policy" if the project is forced to move to a different body of water.

Nihous said he understands why there is opposition from Hawaiians, environmentalists, others and even a few scientists, but stressed this is short-term research project data collection project and not the first step toward a full-scale carbon dioxide ocean sequestration project in Hawaii.

The goal is to see whether computer models that simulate carbon dioxide ocean sequestration are on track, he said.

Nihous said the project could take place elsewhere, but it does not make sense to do so since it will not have a significant impact on the ocean or marine life. He added the test will use less than the 40-60 tons of liquid carbon dioxide proposed in the environmental assessment of the project.

Scientists in Norway last month proposed a large-scale demonstration on carbon dioxide ocean sequestration in the Norwegian Sea.

"We are very confident that is an innocuous thing to do," Nihous said.

Unlike highly toxic Agent Orange, carbon dioxide is in our every breath and is vital to plant life. Kilauea volcano releases about 13 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"It would be professional suicide to promote something that would have a really detrimental effect on the environment, especially for those who for 10 or 12 years have worked for renewable energies and have made a career working on Earth-friendly and that type of technology," he said.

Nevertheless, OHA and the state Legislature have held hearings on carbon dioxide ocean sequestration in the past year. And U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink wrote to Nihous in March, urging him to move the project because there are too many unanswered questions on possible impacts of a such an experiment to Hawaii's ocean environment.

State House Energy and Environmental Chairwoman Hermina Morita (D, Haiku-Kapaa) said the Legislature passed a resolution earlier this year urging Congress to develop energy alternatives that do not contribute to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which is the result of the burning of fossil fuels.

Morita agrees there are many unanswered questions about carbon dioxide ocean sequestration, such as the expense of transporting carbon dioxide to these sites and the threat to nearby communities.

For example, she pointed to a incident at Lake Nyos, Cameroon, where a tremor in August 1986 released a heavy cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide that killed 1,800 people.

"For me, the simple fact that this happened, what could be the implications to Hawaii if there was a similar catastrophe?" she said.

Cataluna said OHA's Land Committee last year held a hearing in Keahole on the issue. Dozens of Hawaiians, many of them fishermen, testified against the experiment.

Cataluna, as the new Land Committee chairman, has revisited the issue at that level but has not yet forwarded it to the full board for any action.

Nihous said he is open to discussing the issue again with the OHA board.

Cataluna added last year's OHA elections brought in new trustees unfamiliar with the project.

He has taken it upon himself to inform as many people as possible, although he admits not much can be done since the test will now be conducted outside of state waters.

"And so the test is to take this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pump it into the ocean to get rid of it," Cataluna said.

"My personal feeling is that it shouldn't be in Hawaii's pristine waters. ... I'm concerned there may be some adverse effects," he said.

"Nobody really knows (the long-term effects), and it may be some adverse thing like Esteron 10-10 becoming Agent Orange, and I was responsible," Cataluna said. "I was the guy that sprayed it. I mixed 10 parts of this and 10 parts of that with diesel oil and sprayed to kill brush. The potential may be dangerous, so why here?"

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