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Methane Hydrates: Energy Salvation or Worst Thing Yet?

RP Siegel | Wednesday March 20th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Natural gas bridgeLast week, energy researchers in Japan made a dramatic breakthrough that could have huge implications for the entire world’s energy, and since these two things are now inextricably linked, climate, future.

For the first time ever, workers were able to successfully extract and burn gas from an undersea bed of methane hydrates, some 1000 feet below the floor of the Eastern Nankai Trough, 50 miles south of the Atsumi Peninsula. This is a big deal for several reasons.

It’s a big deal because Japan, having backed away from nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, is now importing about 84 percent of their energy. Importing puts a big drain on their economy and is helping to push them into a trade deficit.

Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) estimates that there is 11 years’ worth of gas imports lying in the Nankai Trough alone. More broadly, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology estimates a potential 100 year supply of gas. Japanese officials claim that commercial scale production of these resources could be developed in as little as six years.

But methane hydrates, also known as flammable ice, are not limited to the waters surrounding Japan. They are found throughout the world, both in undersea beds and also locked in Arctic ice.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that there are somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 trillion cubic feet out there. To put that in perspective, that is an amount equal to, or greater than the total amount of all other fossil fuels on the planet. Estimates vary, but even the conservative ones say there is more than twice as much methane hydrate as there is natural gas.

So, from a running-out-of-energy perspective, this is great news, assuming that the technical and logistical problems of safely extracting this fuel at commercial scale can be solved. But what does safely extracted mean. And what about the climate change impact?

Matt McDermott at Motherboard claims that if Japan and others are successful in their exploitation of methane hydrates, it would be “game over” for the climate.

Referring to Bill McKibben’s “terrifying new math,” which states that we can safely emit only another 565 gigatons of CO2 before things really start going haywire with the climate, that’s 565 when we still have 2,795 in existing proven reserves, not including these new methane hydrates which could essentially double that number.

So, our struggling economy, which even George W. Bush said was addicted to oil, could be likened to an alcoholic walking past the open door of a bar just as the bartender yells out, “all drinks only ten cents.” It doesn’t mean he’s going to go in and buy a drink, but the temptation is going to be awfully strong.

And if those in the position to be making decisions about these things are making those decisions based on anything other than the perspective of carbon emissions, they’re going to say, “This is too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

Point taken. But there are other considerations. First of all, there is the possibility that, as the ocean continues heating up, the methane hydrate could thaw and directly release the methane, which is 21 times more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere. In that scenario, we would actually be better off burning the gas, converting it into CO2 and water vapor, than letting it escape as methane, though that is clearly a lesser-of-two-evils situation and a very dire one at that.

If, the other hand, the gas is used as a substitute for coal, which it certainly would in Japan, where it still provides 20 percent of their primary energy, the net impact, at least in the short term, would be lower emissions. But then, this effort would likely draw resources and attention away from existing plans to develop renewable energy sources.

Then there is the very real possibility that efforts to extract gas from these hydrates could result in significant releases of methane which would be extremely problematic, even to the extent of undoing billions of dollars and years of work spent trying to cut back in other areas.

So we find ourselves, once again, confronting an energy opportunity with enormous potential risks. And as good as we are with developing and managing technology, both Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon should stand as fresh reminders to give considerable pause before letting the stakes get that high, if any viable alternatives exist; which, in this case, I think it’s fair to say they do.

But, alas, there is more to this story. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have received foundation funding to study the opportunity and see if there was a way to safely extract this energy without adding to our growing carbon emissions problem.

Their proposed solution would be to burn the methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean, bring electricity up to the surface, and then sequester the carbon dioxide in the same rock lattice that they removed the methane from.

“There are, of course, tremendous challenges and uncertainty regarding the in situ utilization of methane hydrates, but the ultra high pressure environment of the deep ocean offers some new ways to think about clean power production,” said Derek Dunn-Rankin, one of the study’s two leaders.

All of this can be quite confusing, not to mention disturbing. How much of this push into more and more risky forms of energy production, is based on true need, in the absence of viable alternatives, and how much of it is, as I have suggested before, the actions of a very deep-pocketed energy industry using the prospect of lower prices to forestall any movement away from their products, regardless of the risks; be it offshore drilling, tar sands oil pipelines, fracking and now methane hydrates. All of these energy sources have been known for 40-50 years, but were considered either too risky or not economically viable at the time. What is driving the transformation of that viewpoint? Is it desperation or is it greed, or perhaps some combination of the two?

The argument for replacing coal with gas is compelling and cannot be ignored, because of the substantial short term benefits. Gas emits essentially half as much CO2 per unit of energy. The need for gas as a bridge fuel has been pretty much universally accepted. But we need to think urgently of long term sustainability. Burning natural gas, despite these enormous reserves, is not sustainable because of the emissions.

I’ve been saying for a while that even natural gas plants should be considering carbon sequestration, though that technology is far from proven and not without its risks. This is why I would not want to make it a primary source, which is clearly what the energy industry has in mind.

[Image credit: Paulus Maximus!: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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