Seaweed Cultivation for Carbon Removal in California

  Algae Europe December 2022
Seaweed Cultivation

A new white paper explores barriers to seaweed permitting for carbon sequestration in California.

by Korey Silverman-Roati

Recently, Columbia University’s Sabin Center Center for Climate Change Law released a white paper exploring barriers to seaweed permitting for carbon sequestration in California. A previous paper discussed international, and U.S. federal and state laws applicable to seaweed cultivation. That paper was part of a series of white papers exploring the legal issues associated with a number of ocean-based carbon dioxide removal strategies, including ocean alkalinity enhancement and artificial upwelling and downwelling.

Seaweed cultivation off the California coast is still in nascent stages, with only two commercial, open-water seaweed farms in California waters at the time of writing, but farmers have expressed growing interest in expanding the practice.

Barriers and Recommendations

One barrier to expanding seaweed cultivation in California is a complex, costly, and time-consuming lease and permitting process. Other states in the U.S., namely Maine and Alaska, have permitting systems designed to be more supportive of seaweed cultivation. This new white paper explores possible reforms to streamline California’s permitting process, while maintaining appropriate environmental and other safeguards.

Permitting for seaweed cultivation in California involves approvals from a considerable number of state and federal agencies, pursuant to state and federal land use and environmental laws. The process can effectively be split into three parts: (1) obtaining a state water bottom lease; (2) completing an environmental review; and (3) completing a multi-agency permitting process to allow seaweed ocean farming inside of the lease area. Due to the multiple steps involved, the permitting process for seaweed farming operations can be costly and may take several years to complete.

California policymakers may be able to draw lessons from less costly and quicker permitting systems in Maine and Alaska. Alaska offers permittees a joint agency aquatic farming application that can be used to obtain required state approvals, including the site lease, farm operation permit, and special area permit. The consolidated joint agency approach in Alaska is in part responsible for faster processing times than in California.

Maine offers seaweed farmers three forms of permits, each with different levels of complexity in the permitting process. These include experimental leases and limited purpose licenses that give farmers flexibility, allowing for experimentation in location and methods.

The new paper concludes with five recommended changes to the lease and permitting process in California. Ideally, these could serve to lessen or remove unnecessary roadblocks to permitting, while still maintaining important environmental and other review of prospective projects.

The recommendations, discussed in more detail in the paper, are to:

  • Streamline the permit application process;
  • Develop public interest criteria that balance climate goals and environmental stewardship;
  • Prioritize state water bottom leases for seaweed farms in designated areas and prepare program environmental impact reports;
  • Create a new categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act; and
  • Create experimental permits.

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