Ocean Currents

What Does More Carbon Pollution Mean for the Ocean?

The path to healthy ocean does not lie in drilling and pipeline-building for this dirty fuel, but in exploring alternatives. Photo: Ray Bodden via Flickr

“Where do we start?” It’s a question that I’m asked every day in relation to the opportunities we have to put the ocean at the center of the most pressing issues of our time.

One of our readers, who is very concerned about increasing CO2 emissions, asked that question in a comment on my last blog, where I detailed how rising carbon pollution is the greatest risk to the ocean and the resources—food, water, air, energy—it provides to sustain us.

The first step we need to take is to find out more about the species, people and places that are already feeling the effects of increased carbon pollution. The ocean is absorbing more and more of our carbon emissions, and its waters are becoming more acidic as a result. Ocean acidity has already increased 30 percent in the past few decades, and we are starting to see real impacts on species that depend on calcium for their shells.

For instance, the University of North Carolina’s Aquarium Research Center is finding that “higher levels of carbon in the ocean are causing oysters to grow slower, and their predators—such as blue crabs—to grow faster,” as reported last week by the Washington Post. Essentially, this means that crabs will decimate oysters in an effort to build up their shells, which, of course, can’t go on for very long.

Scientists aren’t the only ones who are witnessing these worrisome changes in the ocean’s chemistry. Ask oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest about ocean acidification, and they’ll say this has become an existential issue for them. Oystermen in Washington state are taking action to protect their waters so the oysters survive, given that increased carbon emissions are wreaking havoc on their businesses.

As this trend continues, additional species, some of them essential to the ocean food chain, will suffer. The risk this poses to those who depend on the ocean for food and for livelihoods is enormous.

The second step we need to take is to look at the big picture and think long term in the management of our energy resources. There are about 2 trillion tons of carbon-based fuels—oil, coal, gas—in the ground globally. Of that, we can only burn about half if we want to keep climate change and ocean acidification to a manageable level. Since we’ve already burned 500 billion tons since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have another 500 billion left to go.

Considering that, it’s no surprise that there’s a heated debate about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Those sands hold the second largest petroleum reserve on earth; they contain a total of more than 1.63 trillion barrels of oil, of which about 170 billion barrels can be profitably refined at today’s energy prices.

These are stunning numbers made even more worrisome because this is dirty, carbon-rich fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that burning oil from the Alberta tar sands, compared to cleaner natural gas, would add an extra 600 million to 1.15 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over time.

Increased development of these Alberta oil deposits is dependent on the 830,000 barrels-per-day Keystone XL pipeline to be brought to market. If approved, the pipeline will run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Port Arthur, Texas, crossing six American states and multiple aquifers that provide drinking water to millions of people.

One-third of all carbon emissions are absorbed by the ocean, so adding a billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere means we’ll dramatically speed up the rate of acidification in the ocean, threatening lives and livelihoods. It’s a backward step when we should be doing exactly the opposite: lowering the trajectory for acidification, finding ways to reduce the need to dig up and burn fossil fuels, and making the oceans count.

The Obama administration is considering this proposal right now, and there are a few days left in the public comment period. If you want to let the Obama administration know about your concerns, a good place to start is by writing to the State Department. Let them know that you want them to include the ocean and the people who depend on it—1 in 6 jobs in the United States is marine-related—in the evaluation of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

It’s hard to imagine how a case can be made that these kinds of carbon numbers will have negligible effects. Let the Obama administration know that the path for a healthy future for us and for the planet does not lie in drilling and pipeline-building for this dirty fuel, but in exploring alternatives.

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