Tapping massive deposits of ‘fire ice’ methane hydrate can change India’s energy landscape
Massive imports of oil and natural gas have exacerbated India’s big trade deficit, which is a hurdle to the acceleration of economic growth. Light at the end of the tunnel comes from a technological breakthrough last week by JOGMEC (Japan Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation ). It succeeded in extracting natural gas from sea-bed deposits of methane hydrate, popularly called ” fire ice” because it is a white crystalline solid that burns. India has some of the biggest methane hydrate reserves in the world. It will reap a bonanza if technological progress allows gas to be extracted from hydrates economically and safely.
JOGMEC says it is contemplating commercial gas production maybe as early as 2016. Meanwhile China and the US have major programmes for exploration and experimental extraction. India, alas, is nowhere in the picture.
Estimates of global reserves are sketchy, but range from 2,800 trillion to 8 billion trillion cu.metres of natural gas. This is several times higher than global reserves of 440 trillion cu. metres of conventional gas. However, only a small fraction of hydrate reserves will be exploitable.
Methane hydrate is a mixture of natural gas and water that becomes a solid in cold, high-pressure conditions in deep sea-beds (where the temperature falls to 2 degrees centigrade). It is also found in onshore deposits in the permafrost of northern Canada and Russia. Heating the deposits or lowering the pressure (the technique used by JOGMEC) will release gas from the solid. One litre of solid hydrate releases around 165 litres of gas.
India has long been known to have massive deposits of methane hydrate. These are tentatively estimated at 1,890 trillion cu. meters. An Indo-US scientific joint venture in 2006 explored four areas: the Kerala-Konkan basin, the Krishna-Godavari basin, the Mahanadi basin and the seas off the Andaman Islands. The deposits in the Krishna Godavari basin turned out to be among the richest and biggest in the world. The Andamans yielded the thickest-ever deposits 600 metres below the seabed in volcanic ash sediments. Hydrates were also found in the Mahanadi basin.
Formidable economic and environmental challenges lie ahead. Nobody has yet found an economic way of extracting gas from hydrates. Industry guesstimates suggest the initial cost may be about $30/ mmBTU, double the spot rate in Asia and nine times higher than the US domestic price. JOGMEC is optimistic that the cost can be cut with new technology and scale economies.