Murky waters for commercial ocean fertilization projects

The governing body for ocean-fertilization projects issued a resolution today impeding the prospect for commercially driven experiments in the foreseeable future.

The London Convention and Protocol (LCP) said “that, given the present state of knowledge, ocean fertilization activities other than legitimate scientific research should not be allowed.”

The resolution cleared up confusion amongst scientists this year as to whether research-driven projects would be permitted, but it stopped short of a mentioning commercial projects, as originally pursued by San Francisco’s Climos.

David Santillo, a senior scientist with Greenpeace Research Laboratories, told the Cleantech Group that he interpreted the resolution as effectively prohibiting any experiment by a company looking to receive carbon credits for its ocean iron fertilization work.

But the impact of the resolution isn’t so cut-and-dry, according to Dan Whaley, CEO of San Francisco-based Climos.

“That’s interpreting the language, and you’re free to do so, but that would be taking the perspective of Greenpeace,” Whaley said today. “The language was chosen very carefully and it doesn’t mention commercialization.”

Climos has planned to use ocean iron fertilization (OIF) projects to gain carbon credits (see Plankton to the rescue). But Whaley said the company is pleased the convention affirmed that researchers would be allowed to do experiments.

“Climos’s goal is to preserve opportunities for scientific research. Our goal is to bring private capital to these projects,” Whaley said. “I think the question of commercialization is a question for the future.”

Going forward, any project attempting to stimulate productivity in the ocean must get approval on a case-by-case basis, the resolution says. The LCP plans to establish a framework of governing bodies across the globe to decide on projects and enforce the new rules.

The resolution is binding to its member countries and is expected to become law within a couple years.

The resolution was notable, in part, because the LCP establishes itself as the governing body for ocean fertilization. The group was established in the 1970s to prevent the dumping of nuclear and other waste in the ocean but has recently become one of the default oversight agents of OIF.

The LCP is part of the International Maritime Organization and meets semiannually to decide on what can be dumped into the ocean, most recently issuing a statement of scientific concern about OIF (see Despite opposition, ocean iron fertilization forging ahead).

Whaley told the Cleantech Group last week that he had high hopes going into the LCP meeting because of the scientific community’s support of large-scale experiments.

“There were a couple times last year that we thought the opportunity was over,” Whaley said. “But there’s certainly an element of support coming from parts of the scientific community.”

Twelve small-scale projects since 1993 in the open ocean have shown the iron to stimulate the growth of plants, which absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. But the experiments were too small to definitively prove their ability to sequester carbon, so a large scale-project is needed, said Ken Johnson, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who has participated in three OIF experiments.

“The next logical step is a big-scale experiment,” Johnson said. “But you need funding to do that, and since the government isn’t touching it, you have to look in the for-profit realm.”

Greenpeace is happy with the type of oversight the LCP established today, Santillo said. The organization has voiced concerns that OIF could drastically alter pH levels or add to nitrous oxide or C02 concentration as plant matter dies.

Santillo said he thinks it’s important to make sure that science, instead of the promise of profit, is driving the experiments.

“You have pieces of scientific research that are partially or fully funded by private organizations or companies. That’s not unique by any means,” he said. “But you have to make a distinction when commercial research is being done to deliver a certain outcome. If you have research that’s being funded on the understanding that it will produce revenue at the end, it’s clearly not objective science.”

Santillo also said that Greenpeace opposed such projects that gave society “a get-out clause” to emissions-reduction standards and draw research funding away from technologies that cut emissions.

“It’s all a distraction from dealing with the real problem: emissions at the source,” he said.

Johnson said his research has convinced him that simply reducing emissions isn’t enough to undo the current trajectory of climate change.

“Even if you somehow cap everything, then fertilizing the ocean gets the carbon out of the atmosphere even faster,” he said. “Large areas of the ocean are not very biologically productive because they lack iron. It wouldn’t be something you’d do if you had other options, so the real question is: ‘Is this the lesser of two evils?'”

Whaley said Climos “respects the process” and wouldn’t disobey the LCP’s ruling. He declined to say what’s next for Climos.

“We’ll circle the wagons and decide how to move forward,” he said last week when talking about possible outcomes of the meeting.

Climos has hired Pasadena, Calif.’s Tetra Tech (Nasdaq: TTEK) to initiate a detailed environmental analysis of the carbon capture method (see Climos hires Tetra Tech for environmental analysis).

Climos has raised at least $3.5 million in a Series A round of financing led by Braemar Energy Ventures. Tesla Motors chairman Elon Musk also participated in the round (see Cleantech cash goes in all directions).

Now-defunct Planktos was pursuing a business plan similar to Climos.