Get On Board: Emissions Without Borders

Martha Walden, 350 Humboldt

Members of the Operating Engineers Local Three Union packed the Supervisors’ chambers at the Planning Commission meeting on July 28.  One by one they voiced support for the aquaculture facility proposed by Nordic Aquafarms. They praised the project for furnishing not just jobs but food for the table and something to be proud of. 

Humboldt activist Jack Nounan struck a different note when he addressed not just the Planning Commission but also the engineers. There is nothing wrong with wanting jobs, he said, but climate change must direct our choices. There’s no getting around the stark necessity of having to reduce our emissions and to do it fast. Our future depends on it.

Those who took their turns at the podium after Nounan gave no indication of weighing today’s benefits against consequences for tomorrow. Taking the claims of the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) at face value, they praised its greenness. However, the other side of the picture emerged during the rest of the meeting as many more people phoned in to express their concerns about the varied impacts. 350 Humboldt targeted the climate ramifications of the proposed project, finding that large sectors of emissions were under-counted or missing altogether from the EIR.

The most egregious example concerns the emissions incurred by feeding the fish. Nordic took advantage of a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) loophole that said emissions occurring outside of California didn’t necessarily have to be counted. So, of course, they didn’t include them even though emissions have no geographical loyalties, and neither does climate change. 350 Humboldt has calculated those emissions at 96,000 to 191,000 metric tons per year, based on sustainability reports from two of the biggest fish food producers that Nordic has said it will use. 

Nordic’s promise to supply their astronomic electricity needs – as much as Eureka’s and Fortuna’s combined – with renewable energy has made a good impression and would certainly help. However, the reality of our electricity situation here in Humboldt is complicated. At this point we have no substantial local source of renewable energy except for biomass, a highly carbon-intensive and dirty fuel. 

Many of us are hoping for offshore wind energy, but those megawatts haven’t hatched yet, and we can’t assume they will. It’s possible that Redwood Coast Energy Authority  (RCEA) will simply secure renewable energy contracts somewhere in the state that would theoretically displace about the same amount of fossil fuel energy that the aquafarm would use. But here at home the Bay Station would ramp up its natural-gas-based production and possibly the biomass plant would also. 

Under this scenario it seems all but impossible that Humboldt would be able to significantly decrease our emissions by 2050, as the climate emergency and California law demands, while providing Nordic with all the electricity they need, and also electrifying our own buildings and transportation as well. 

The planned aquafarm would be by far the largest land-based, recirculating aquaculture system in the world. If successful, it would guarantee huge profits for its investors, but huge losses could occur if it’s dogged by the same problems other RAS facilities have experienced. Many environmental advocates have suggested a smaller project for starters. It would be less risky, emit less GHG and require less electricity. Eventually, a nearby offshore wind project could provide all the clean, renewable energy they would need. So far this common sense suggestion has not found an audience.