NPR Story
7:30 am
Tue May 13, 2014

EarthFix Conversation: The X Prize of Ocean Acidification

A lawmaker from Washington state wants to see federal research money offered as a prize to scientists who find solutions to the problem of ocean acidification.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., plans to pursue that strategy next week by introducing legislation that would employ the model used by the X Prize to advance private spaceflight.

As more carbon dioxide is emitted, it is changing the oceans' chemistry, making the waters more corrosive. That's harming shellfish, coral reefs and the marine food web. It threatens the shellfish industry, which Kilmer's Puget Sound district represents.

An X Prize competition for solutions to ocean acidification is currently underway -- sponsored by Wendy Schmidt, the spouse of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

KUOW's EarthFix reporter Ashley Ahearn spoke with Kilmer about why he thinks its an approach the federal government should take, too.

Derek Kilmer: The idea here is you take existing research funds and rather than just providing a grant for conducting the research you use a prize competition driven towards achieving a certain research goal. These competitions would be created to increase our ability to manage and to research and to monitor ocean acidification, to mitigate some of those impacts.

Ashley Ahearn: How much money could governmental agencies be making available as a prize?

Kilmer: Well right now you have about $30 million that federal agencies have secured for ocean acidification research. What this would do is simply direct federal agencies to use existing funds, even a portion of those existing funds, to design competitions. The bill was put together in collaboration with X Prize and we look at this as a way to increase investment in solutions to some very challenging problems facing our society and our environment.

Ahearn: So $30 million is not going to be given away in prize money. Can you give me a ballpark?

Kilmer: It’s not dictated in the bill so I wouldn’t want to, to some degree we want the federal agencies to determine what would constitute a reasonable amount. So rather than dictating that through the legislation, what we’re simply saying is let's try to drive some leverage so we can get additional research done on managing and monitoring and hopefully counteracting the impacts of ocean acidification.

Ahearn: We look at this problem and we see the symptoms here in Washington state. We see how it’s impacting our shellfish industry and beyond but it seems not enough politicians are looking at the root of the problem. What is your stance on putting a price on carbon, a carbon cap and trade system or a tax, to look at the other end of this problem?

Kilmer: Well I think you’re starting to see, certainly the public has engaged on the fact that ocean acidification and climate change are problems. Congress unfortunately is not as engaged as the general public has been on these issues.

If you go out to the coast in the region that I represent there’s no question that these things are happening. I have three tribes in my district that are literally having to relocate as a result of flooding and rising sea levels. You’ve got those involved in our fisheries, including our shellfish growers, who are seeing the impacts of ocean acidification already and so my hope is that making progress on ocean acidification can be a bipartisan effort.

I even think it can be a bicoastal effort. You’re seeing in the eastern part of the country, the lobster industry in Maine, the crab fishermen in Maryland are concerned about the impacts of ocean acidification so I think that there’s a desire to see Congress engage in a real way on mitigating the impacts of ocean acidification and over the long haul trying to do something about how much CO2 is being emitted.

Watch a video report:

Correction: May 13, 2014. An earlier version of this story misidentified the sponsor of the Ocean Health X Prize. It is sponsored by Wendy Schmidt, the spouse of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

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