Buried beneath the world’s oceans and the Arctic permafrost lies a global energy source that many think might dwarf today’s fracking revolution: huge reservoirs of natural gas trapped in ice crystals.
They’re called methane hydrates and are sometimes known as “flammable ice.” If tapping methane hydrates ever becomes feasible, it once again would change the geopolitical map of the planet. Nations like Japan and India that lack their own conventional oil and gas resources suddenly could become energy power players.
The U.S. Department of Energy says “methane hydrates may exceed the energy content of all other fossil fuels combined” and “could ensure decades of affordable natural gas and cut America’s foreign oil dependence.”
But the possibility that fossil fuels could drive the world’s economies indefinitely — even the most conservative forecasts describe methane hydrates as a bounty greater than all other sources of natural gas combined — dismays many, who for decades have hoped scarcity eventually would wean the globe from its dependence on greenhouse gas-producing technologies.
“Then you get into the question, are we going to stick with fossil fuels until we completely fry the atmosphere?” said Richard Charter, who is a senior fellow at the environmental group The Ocean Foundation and also a member of the Energy Department’s methane hydrates advisory committee.
The International Energy Agency said in a November report that the viability of methane hydrates as a fuel source will depend on technological advances as well as climate change policies. Meeting goals to reduce carbon emissions will require cutting back on all fossil fuels, even those derived from ice. There’s also the fact that methane is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere, the IEA noted, and great care is needed in harvesting it.
There are huge challenges to producing natural gas from methane hydrates. But Japan hopes to come up with ways to develop the untapped resource within the next five to 10 years, and other nations are also pressing ahead on research, including the United States, which has vast amounts of the stuff beneath the permafrost of the Alaskan Arctic and deep in the Gulf of Mexico.
Methane hydrates are formed at crushingly high pressure and frozen temperatures, a condition found at the bottom of the otherwise warm Gulf of Mexico. The ice crystals caused problems for BP’s equipment as it tried to contain the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Oil companies are well aware of their potential as an energy resource, but so far they’ve mostly been something to avoid while drilling.
National Energy Technology Laboratory director Anthony Cugini said at this year’s Deloitte Energy Conference that whoever has his job in the coming decades could be talking about a hydrate energy revolution.
“These methane hydrates really create an opportunity that can move shale gas to the back page if you believe that. The resource is so large,” Cugini said.
America already has a glut of cheap natural gas from shale and no immediate need to develop methane hydrates. Other nations, however, have far different energy needs and are pushing harder to get methane hydrates developed.