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Methane Hydrates: The Next Energy Revolution?

Field experiments this winter into methane hydrates on Alaska’s North Slope could determine whether the resource will become the shale gas of the next generation.

The work done in Alaska will inform the potential extraction of methane hydrates believed to lie beneath the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, and if successful, could also provide a feasible way to store molecules of carbon dioxide and remove them from the atmosphere.

That is, if the experiments work, said Christopher Smith, deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas at the Energy Department.

“We know theoretically we can do a lot of things,” he said, “but in order to attract investments and move forward with bigger types of demonstrations and industry interest, we’ve got to show on the physical scale that the things we understand theoretically will work out when you’re in the messy environment of the natural world.”

In January, the Energy Department will begin about 100 days of experiments into carbon exchange and methane harvesting from methane hydrates — lattices of ice that trap molecules of gas deep underground.

“We see that it is something that holds enormous potential, enormous promise and for that reason, we’re making some relatively modest investments, but some really targeted investments that are really going to help us understand the science behind how hydrates behave,” said Smith.

The project is small in terms of capital.

Energy is investing $5 million, while an additional $7 million will come from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., a government entity. ConocoPhillips will contribute $5.3 million to the research project. In comparison, DOE invested about $150 million over 14 years on research into extracting shale gas.

The small price tag is actually a good thing, Smith said.

“We can do a really efficient test, and it will give us real insight on the big picture in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

The research is being performed in Alaska, Smith said, because beyond having a large resource base, the infrastructure is already there and it’s cheaper to drill on an ice pad than to set up a deep water well.

“Alaska is the ideal natural laboratory for doing this type of work,” Smith said.

Methane hydrates will form where methane and water are present under the right temperature and pressure conditions, making the Gulf of Mexico a likely location for large amounts of the resource said Arthur Johnson, a petroleum geologist and consultant for Hydrate Energy International in Kenner, La.

“It is an absolutely enormous resource potential, but of course you have to be able to extract it safely, and the other thing is economics,” Johnson said. “If you have to put more energy into it than you’re getting out, it’s not a resource.”

Johnson said estimates suggest tens of thousands of trillion cubic feet of natural gas are tied up in hydrate reservoirs beneath the floor of the ocean and in the permafrost in Arctic regions. One cubic foot of methane hydrate yields about 164 cubic feet of gas.

What it comes down to is economics, said Davy Kong, spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips.

“Many experts believe that methane hydrates hold significant potential to supply this clean fossil fuel,” Kong said. “At present, the technology does not exist to produce methane economically from hydrates. This trial is an important first step in analyzing a production technology with potential both to produce this resource and to sequester carbon dioxide in the process.”

Johnson said work is still being done to calculate how much more gas would have to cost in order for hydrate extraction to be economically viable. But as the government does the fundamental research to prove that commercial extraction is viable, the industry will take over the research, Johnson said.

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