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FOSTER CITY — When it comes to fighting climate change, one Foster City startup has its sights set on what it believes will be the next frontier: the ocean.

Lured by the prospect of profits and the chance to do good, Foster City-based Planktos Inc. has invested $2 million in a controversial effort to spread as much as 100 tons of pulverized iron across a vast swath of ocean to stimulate the growth of carbon dioxide-gobbling phytoplankton.

As time passes, an underwater forest of plankton will bloom, pulling heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the air and into the ocean's depths, an accelerated version of planting a tree on land.

Planktos is one of hundreds of companies hoping to profit from the worldwide boom in carbon offset credits, a market worth billions of dollars in Europe as governments race to lower their carbon emissions to limits prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol.

If their method proves successful, Planktos could make millions of dollars selling carbon credits for every ton of CO2 their plankton blooms consume.

"We think of ourselves as an ecological restoration company, and the end results of our company will be beneficial in lots of different ways — including economic ways," said Bill Coleman, Planktos' COO and head of marketing.

When the company's converted research vessel, the Weatherbird II, heads for international waters in November, it will mark the first time a corporation will attempt to seed the seas for profit.

Considering the pulverized iron only costs 10 cents a pound, the technology is seen as one of the cheapest ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

Planktos will sprinkle iron dust around a 100 kilometer by 100 kilometer zone of open ocean and Coleman predicts the plankton community will mature within six months.

He is confident Planktos can have a certified product to market within 12 to 18 months. The entire effort is expected to cost $2 million.

Once the company has received certification from U.S. and international officials, Planktos will be able to sell the carbon credits more cheaply than its competitors. Prices currently average $5 to $10 a ton.

"Plankton are more efficient than trees at removing CO2. It takes a 10,000 hectare forest about 20 years to sequester the same amount of carbon that a similar sized 'plankton forest' can remove in just six months," Coleman said.

Planktos is one of a handful of startups preparing to sow the seas and reap the benefits. Another company, San Francisco-based Climos, has announced its intention to do the same thing in the near future.

Environmentalists and scientists alike have expressed doubts about the companies' motives and their confidence that their projects won't have major side effects.

Only 10 isolated plankton-inducing iron experiments have taken place around the world since the early 1990s and they were always conducted on a much smaller scale.

Previous scientific results show that adding iron does make phytoplankton grow, sometimes overnight. But scientists have never been able to predict what happens next.

"There was no scientific consensus of what the effects of widespread fertilization would be. It's been possible to qualify what happened during the course of the experiments, but none of the experiments have been able to quantify the long-term and downstream effects," said John Cullen, a professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University who has been studying phytoplankton processes since the 1980s.

Cullen is among a group of oceanographers calling for more research before companies like Planktos dive into uncharted territory.

As plankton die, Planktos hopes they will sink into the deep ocean in the form of "marine snow," taking the carbon they consumed with them and trapping it there for hundreds of years.

But scientists note that as plankton decompose, they use oxygen that fish need to breathe underwater. They worry about loss of oxygen concentrations that could result if experiments like Planktos' were to multiply.

Another concern is the release of nitrous oxide or laughing gas, which has 200 times the greenhouse gas potential of CO2. Nitrogen, one of the building blocks of phytoplankton, can stimulate the production of nitrous oxide when the organisms decompose. 

Finally, it's unclear how much of the carbon dioxide will sink into the deepest reaches of the ocean for 100 years or more — a crucial selling point for carbon credits.

"The proposal is to fundamentally alter the chemistry and biology of the ocean on a grand scale. You have to be able to measure those effects and verify them, and be able to say that other, counteracting effects did not occur," Cullen said. "They have to be able to quantify secondary effects for 100 years, and there's no way that can be scientifically verified."

Coleman said Planktos is doing the world a favor by reviving plankton populations in one of many parts of the world's oceans that are currently experiencing a deficit of iron, one of the essential ingredients that promote plankton photosynthesis.

"The oceans are in severe decline and yet there is no effort underway to try to address that decline in productivity," he said, comparing the effort to a group of farmers working to manage the fertility of the oceans.

Furthermore, he said, there's nothing unnatural about adding an ingredient that has gone missing from the oceans' natural processes.

"We've done exhaustive research into the data that are available that address all of those questions," said Coleman. "If we bring back plankton communities to levels they once enjoyed, then how can there be negative effects from that? We are bringing plankton communities back to a baseline."

When pressed, however, Coleman acknowledged that the "baseline" guiding the company was "unclear." He pointed to a NASA satellite study from 2003 that suggested plankton growth declined by as much as 10 percent in some parts of the ocean between the late 1970s and 2002. Some scientists say satellite imagery is a less reliable method of judging plankton productivity than conducting on-site studies, of which there have been none.

In spite of their concerns, many leading scientists say it would be a mistake to overlook the potential of sequestering CO2 in the ocean.

"There are a lot of people who would consider the oceans to be sacred and say we shouldn't be messing with them. It's my opinion that we have this freight train of climate change descending on us, and I think it's too soon to discount iron fertilization as a potential remedy that is one of many that need to be explored," said Kenneth Coale, director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and lead scientist on many U.S. iron seeding experiments.

The trick is to develop a standard, industrywide protocol for testing and verification. Planktos' methodology will need to be approved by the California Climate Action Registry, a nonprofit entity Coale said has no experience analyzing ocean-based carbon reduction projects.

Instead, Coale would like to see the creation of an international oversight organization to take a good, hard look at the science and conduct wide-scale iron fertilization experiments. Companies like Planktos would have a place in it, as would governments. Its primary funding would come from oil industry companies chiefly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think we need to inform this entire discussion with fact and not opinion," said Coale.

Climos, the other Bay Area company pursuing iron fertilization, made headlines recently when it presented a suggested "code of conduct" for the entire industry at a meeting of scientists in late September.

The document calls for independent verification, transparency, collaboration with scientists, and compliance with all national and international laws. It also advocates calculating the secondary emissions of gases like nitrous oxide, and subtracting those negative consequences from the overall CO2 reduction benefits a company claims to have.

"In order to understand whether ocean fertilization can be effective, you first need to define what the parameters of effectiveness are," said Dan Whaley, founder and CEO of Climos. "If you don't deduct any secondary gases that are generated, if you don't watch for potential negative consequences, then there's no reason that you should be doing it."

It's unclear whether Planktos' plans fit in under marine dumping laws, since the project will take place in international waters, beyond any national jurisdiction. The U.S. Ocean Dumping Act prohibits the dumping of iron in the ocean, as it is considered a pollutant.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has thus far refused to provide Planktos with a permit, but the company could circumvent the U.S. law by flying the flag of another country.

Planktos originally intended to conduct their first iron fertilization project off the Galapagos Islands in May. In June, the scientific working group of the London Convention, established by the International Maritime Organization, issued a statement noting "with concern the potential for large-scale ocean iron fertilization to have negative impacts on the marine environment and human health."

In spite of its imminent November departure, Coleman said Planktos had still not decided where it would travel to or what country's flag it will choose to fly.

"We have a variety of choices and we want to make the best business choice," he said.

Planktos' future is equally unclear. On Oct. 23, Coleman announced he would be leaving Planktos for the Green Building Exchange in Redwood City, where he will be president and CEO.

That leaves Planktos founder and CEO Russ George, who does not take a salary, and 20 employees, some of which are on the Weatherbird II which is docked in Fort Pierce, Fla.

In September, the company announced that it had secured funding of up to $2 million from unknown investors, most of which would go toward its iron fertilization project.

In spite of the publicity it has received, Planktos isn't willing to postpone the trip any longer.

"We think we can be successful based upon the momentum we have right now," said Coleman. "Further, someone has to show that this can or can't work."

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4349 or at julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com.