Ocean Scheming

Climos, a company that has staked its fortunes on removing carbon from the atmosphere, is seeking another $10 million to test ocean iron fertilization in the Southern Ocean, despite a United Nations ban on the practice. Faced with negative science and mounting international opposition, 191 countries at a May 30 U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) temporarily banned further ocean fertilization except small, non-commercial projects in coastal waters.

The process involves dumping dissolved iron into nutrient-deficient waters so that phytoplankton will bloom and, during photosynthesis, sequester millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Blowing iron dust from continents feeds the single-celled plants in the north, resulting in lower phytoplankton numbers in the Southern Ocean. But findings published in the Journal of Geophysical Research last year showed that by bypassing natural processes, significantly less carbon sinks to the ocean depths than commercial interests have claimed.

Climos raised $3.5 million earlier this year to sell carbon credits to companies that pay for iron fertilization. Founder and CEO Dan Whaley says that a 100 km test iron dump in the Southern Ocean is still planned for late 2009. Whaley points to a June 12 report signed by the scientific academies of 13 nations that says global climate change demands suspension of the usual scientific caution.

“Having the 13 major national academies openly support research into geoengineering—and then clarifying that they meant CO2 mitigation, like ocean iron fertilization—is a significant counterpoint to the CBD statement,” Whaley says.

Climos has been waiting to hear from another U.N. body, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which asserted authority in 2007 and plans to release a report on iron fertilization sometime in 2008.

The 60-year-old IMO regulates shipping and ocean pollution, which may or may not mean authority over fertilization schemes. “We are actually hoping the IMO is able to establish its authority,” Whaley says. “We want a thoughtful permitting process we can engage with. We do not want to be cowboys.”

Whaley says the cost of the tests is prohibitive for anyone not hoping to make a profit by selling carbon credits to industry, a process regulated for U.S. firms by the Environmental Protection Agency. Planktos, the company’s leading competitor, announced in February that it was indefinitely suspending its ocean iron program, blaming a “disinformation campaign.”

But there is significant money to be recouped. Dr. Hauke Kite-Powell of the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has said that ocean fertilization is likely to be a $100 billion piece of the emerging worldwide carbon trading market.

CONTACTS: Climos; International Maritime Organization; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution