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Once promising Maine carbon capture company shutters

A sign at the entrance of Running Tide's offices on the Portland waterfront.

Peter McGuire
Maine Public
A sign at the entrance of Running Tide's offices on the Portland waterfront.

Back in March, Running Tide Technologies was riding a wave of success. After years of glowing coverage from CNN, The New York Times, and other outlets it announced it had locked 21,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the ocean off the coast of Iceland.

The company delivered thousands of carbon offset credits to companies such as Microsoft and Shopify that were eager to show reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions.

In the seven years since it opened, it had brought in $50 million in start up investment. But last Friday, less than a year after its Icelandic demonstration, Running Tide suspended operations and laid off its remaining staff.

Founder and CEO Marty Odlin points to changes in the credit market, interest rates and other factors that made it tough to keep investors interested.

"We raised money, set out a plan, executed on that plan, then went to raise more money to execute the next set of plans and we weren’t able to do that. So you have to wind down," Odlin said.

The company Odlin started in 2017 had ambitious plans to fight climate change. It would absorb atmospheric carbon through kelp and floating algae microfarms, trapping the planet-warming gas underwater when the farms sank. Customers would buy the emissions offsets.

It was a brand-new idea, Odlin said. And as a startup, long term success was never guaranteed.

"We made it pretty far, we made it a lot further than I kind of expected," he said.

And Running Tide had its critics. Scientists interviewed by the MIT Technology Review two years ago questioned whether the company understood the potential ecological harm of growing and sinking kelp at the huge scale it imagined.

And just days before Running Tide closed, Icelandic newspaper Heimildin published a searing three-month investigation into its project there, raising questions about its importation of thousands of tons of Canadian wood chips coated with limestone that it dumped in the ocean.

Bjartmar Alexandersson, one of the reporters of the piece, said scientists dismissed the company’s claim that its process would remove thousands of tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

"This claim was not scientifically proven by their company. You can say a lot of things but you have to scientifically prove it," Alexandersson said.

Odlin declined to comment on the investigative piece, but said the company always planned to sink biomass such as wood chips. The Icelandic operation was the first of four planned phases and carried out with scientific integrity, Odlin added.

Brad Ack, CEO of nonprofit Ocean Visions said that Running Tide was a leader in ocean based carbon capture. The company was the first Ocean Visions helped set up a scientific advisory board to review its work. Since then, the group has helped more than a dozen companies testing the effectiveness of trapping carbon in the ocean.

In a perfect world, Ack said, the effort would be supported with a massive government research and development program.

"That’s not how this field has developed, it's been developed by visionary people in the private sector who also have to try to operate a business," he added.

Ack was saddened to learn Running Tide was shuttered, but hopes all the company’s work can guide future research.

That seems likely. Odlin said some of the hundred or so employees Running Tide had at its peak are ready to carry on its mission, and that at least three new companies have already been started started by former workers.