The Coming Methane Hydrate Revolution?

Buring HydrateCredit: DOEOver at The Atlantic Charles Mann has a remarkably interesting article, "What If We Never Run Out of Oil?" detailing how researchers are trying to tap into a vast new source of natural gas - methane trapped in ice at the bottom of the sea. Mann opens by describing recent efforts by Japanese scientists aboard the Chikyu research vessel to develop ways to "mine" this form of natural gas. He then segues to how the current fracking revolution is roiling energy markets:

Already the petroleum industry has been convulsed by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—a technique for shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing previously inaccessible oil, referred to as “tight oil.” Still more important, fracking releases natural gas, which, when yielded from shale, is known as shale gas. (Petroleum is a grab-bag term for all nonsolid hydrocarbon resources—oil of various types, natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on—that companies draw from beneath the Earth’s surface. The stuff that catches fire around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural gas, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has the same chemical makeup no matter what the source—ordinary petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate.) Fracking has been attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies, and may eventually be greatly restricted. But it has also unleashed so much petroleum in North America that the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based consortium of energy-consuming nations, predicted in November that by 2035, the United States will become “all but self-sufficient in net terms.” If the Chikyu researchers are successful, methane hydrate could have similar effects in Japan. And not just in Japan: China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Norway are looking to unlock these crystal cages, as are Canada and the United States....

If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia....

And if methane hydrates can be produced at a reasonable cost, switching from coal and oil to natural gas could help reduce globe-warming greenhouse gas emissions. However, cheap plentiful natural gas would slow the adoption of more costly no-carbon forms of energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear. As Mann observes...

...natural gas plays two roles. To politicians and economists, it is a vehicle for reasserting American might—cheap energy that will liberate the United States from foreign petroleum. To environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel, a substitute for coal and oil that will serve until—but only until—the world can move to zero-carbon energy sources: sunlight, wind, tides, waves, and geothermal heat.

In the short run, these visions are compatible. Although the cost of renewable energy is falling rapidly, it is not yet equivalent to the cost of energy from fossil fuels. As an example, typical solar cells today have an EROEI of about 10—better than tar sands but worse than most oil and gas. (All such estimates are rough in the extreme, because the output of renewables, unlike that of petroleum, depends on where they are located. One recent estimate put the EROEI of Spain’s extensive solar-power network at less than 3.) Many advocates for solar power believe that its EROEI will match that of fossil fuels within a decade.

The whole Mann article is well worth your attention.

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  • ||

    First. No other comment.

  • ||

    I propose all "first" comments be purged and their urls blocked.

  • robc||

    I second the motion.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    I'm wondering if "mining' of these methane hydrates would involve some sort of strip mining of the ocean floor. I'm guessing there are some places in the ocean where that would be very destructive.

  • albo||

    If you have the technology to strip mine methane hydrates 20,000 feet under the ocean, then you have the technology to fix any damage.

    Plus you probably also have the technology to provide robot Jessica Albas to every horny guy on the planet. And how about it.

  • Agammamon||

    Its a good thing the japanese are working the hydrate angle then.

  • ||

    Mostly not.

    It is buried, or not so buried, in mud flats in deep water. There isnt much of anything down there. In any case, we are talking about a majority of the earths surface and what little we would do would be negligible.

  • ||

    Oh, Suthen... You're just not thinking like an environmentalist.

    I'M POSITIVE there is some sort of endangered microbe down there that the earth can't survive without.

    AND

    We'd be destroying that pristine swamp er... wetland mudflat habitat depriving future generations from enjoying its beauty.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    No need for an endangered microbe. If the environmentalist finds the result "ugly" the producer must expend 100X earnings to return the 10,000' deep mud to its "pristine" condition. Just like any wilderness that was seen during the past 10,000 years only by the people digging coal or oil out of it.

  • JWatts||

    Destructive to what? The ocean floor at that depth is more barren than the Sahara desert.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    I wasn't trying to be a tree, or, in this case, coral hugger.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Whether it is destructive or not, the Usual Suspects will maintain that it is, and do everything they can to block it.

    Swine.

  • Adam330||

    "If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia...."

    If it's locked in ice, then I have little doubt that Russia has a lot of it.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    The point of methane hydrates is that anyone with ocean access has a lot of it.

    And BTW, I tipped 24/7 about the media finally finding out about this on last Thursday when I got my Atlantic. People have been calling me a nut about this for years.

  • AuH20||

    Y'know, its a good thing the Japanese hate having kids, because jesus fucking christ do I now understand why people used to fear them ruling the world.

  • AuH20||

    Oh, and a culture that is really into suicide. That probably helped the US a lot.

  • Fluffy||

    Man, a methane hydrate revolution will be good theatre.

    I predict widespread enviroterrorism if this ever got to industrial scale.

    Even I would be a little concerned about the implications of all that sequestered methane hydrate getting into the atmosphere.

  • Agammamon||

    You're assuming a disaster from positive feedback? Like we release methane into the atmosphere, the air warms and frees more methan from the bottom of the sea?

  • ||

    Holy shit the sequester is responsible for everything.

  • GILMORE||

    Even I would be a little concerned about the implications of all that sequestered methane hydrate getting into the atmosphere

    it would make cow farts look like... uhm. Cow farts.

  • Agammamon||

    "To environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel, a substitute for coal and oil that will serve until—but only until—the world can move to zero-carbon energy sources: "

    No Mr. Mann - to environmentalists, natural gas is what is going to set their hairshirt, malthusian agenda back by about a century.

  • GILMORE||

    damn you and your beating me to an obvious comment by 3 minutes

    just because i had to go and 'strikethrough' in a feeble attemp at wit. (shakes fist!)

  • Agammamon||

    Its because I spend less time trying to be witty, say about half of it.

  • juris imprudent||

    You did what I see there.

  • Astra||

    Yeah, we listened to a couple in a restaurant bemoan fracking becuase it would not force all those SUV drivers to a low-consumption lifestyle. Then they drove off in a $80,000 Tesla.

  • JWatts||

    You can't have red necks driving around in trucks and SUV's. It's not proper. You got to keep the riff-raff in their place

  • juris imprudent||

    Those are the people that are going to force me into exiling myself to some remote island with damn few people. Either that or I end up in the big house for culling the herd.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Environmentalists are never in favor of anything that might actually be useful.

  • PapayaSF||

    They were in favor of natural gas, back in the '70s, before they got worried about carbon dioxide.

  • PapayaSF||

    For a pretty good disaster novel based on methane hydrates, see Mother of Storms by John Barnes.

  • PapayaSF||

  • GILMORE||

    To environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel horrifying threat to their efforts to undermine capitalism by restricting human energy use

    FIFY

  • ||

    Fracking and newer technologies like the one described is the one area that gives me a glimmer of hope for the future. I've been hearing estimates that it is possible to be energy independent by the end of the decade. Cheap energy is the one thing that has potential to spur innovation/growth despite government's attempts to destroy it.

  • Bam!||

  • Ron Bailey||

    Bam!: I did not see your earlier comment, so could not have hat tipped you. Please everyone, consider Bam! as being hat tipped now.

  • GILMORE||

    FORMAL H/T OR IT NEVER HAPPENED

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Get in line. I sent in an email to 24/7 last Thursday.

  • Paul.||

    The hat tip isn't prized. The descriptive hat tip, on the other hand...

  • ||

    I know some guys in the upper ranks of offshore drilling companies and they tell me there is an technological race going on be the first to successfully mine methane hydrates. They wont talk about it much. They greenies and the MSM are mostly clueless. There is a million years worth of methane down there and they mostly have no idea about it, but the oil companies are well aware of it.

    The first time I asked one "Hey, what about clathrites?" they nearly shit their pants. They acted like I was asking them to reveal state secrets and wanted to know how I knew about that.

  • Ron Bailey||

    S: As Mann points out in his article, there is work going on to adapt the oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico to producing gas from methane hydrates.

  • GILMORE||

    "clathrates"

    not a rock, dude. not that it matters much.

  • Cytotoxic||

    "They're minerals, Marie."

  • Spoonman.||

    My officemate in the Earth Science department at Rice got funding from a supermajor to spend all day thinking about clathrates.

  • creech||

    Godzilla wants an environmental impact assessment before this shit gets out of hand.

  • 21044||

    However, cheap plentiful natural gas would slow the adoption of more costly...

    This is written as if cheap plentiful natural gas is a bad thing. When alternatives are cheaper, then alternatives will take over.

  • juris imprudent||

    Lefty-environmentalist: No gaiadammit, I want you to crawl back into a cold, moldy cave like evolution and technology intended!

  • OldMexican||

    However, cheap plentiful natural gas would slow the adoption of more costly no-carbon forms of energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear.


    People looking for bargains! Cats and dogs fucking each other! The world is coming to an end!

    typical solar cells today have an EROEI of about 10—better than tar sands but worse than most oil and gas.


    That is, if you set up shop in Mercury...

    [...]One recent estimate put the EROEI of Spain's extensive solar-power network at less than 3.


    And NOT because Spain is like England, mind you...

    Many advocates for solar power believe that its EROEI will match that of fossil fuels within a decade.


    It's just around the corner. Just wait and see....

    Solar, like wind and all other alternative sources of energy have been the "technology of tomorrow" for several decades now.

  • Teaching Student||

    I see solar and wind powers as great opportunities for individuals to power their own houses, etc. Large scale would take too much space.

  • OldMexican||

    Fracking has been attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies, and may eventually be greatly restricted.


    Just the fastest growing energy industry that promises to make America "energy independent" (whether true or not) is going to be "greatly restricted" by pusillanimous politicians with many job-seeking constituents....

    Uh-huh. Right.

  • WomSom||

    I like the looks of that dude. Way cool!

    www.GottenAnon.tk

  • Cytotoxic||

    The truly awesome thing about natgas is the ability to downscale without loss of efficiency. Smaller substations closer to the consumers of power = localized control, less likelihood of catastrophic large scale outage, and far less power lost as heat in the lines. In BC, 1/3 of the energy is lost between generator and consumer.

    The only downside to the hydrates is if a bunch gets loosed off the ocean floor and a ton of methane gets into the atmosphere. Some legit grounds for regulation there.

  • Cytotoxic||

    OOH I just thought of something: natgas cars will FUCK over ethanol rent seekers. That's a bingo!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Keep in mind that natgas, unlike liquid gasoline, WILL explode. Cars running on natgas will have to be built with that in mind, and the occasional accident will still freak people.

  • Greg F||

    In BC, 1/3 of the energy is lost between generator and consumer.

    I doubt that. Transmission losses in the US is around 6%.

  • Ron Bailey||

    C: Mann suggests that most of any methane released directly into seawater would be transformed by bacteria into plain old CO2 before reaching the atmosphere.

  • Paul.||

    One recent estimate put the EROEI of Spain’s extensive solar-power network at less than 3.

    That's where I'd put it.

    ) Many advocates for solar power believe that its EROEI will match that of fossil fuels within a decade

    They won't.

  • scareduck||

    They CAN'T.

  • Longtorso||

    Hey, that's the plotline of the Dallas reboot.

  • johnl||

    Yes.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    You know what else happens on Japanese research vessels?

  • trshmnstr||

  • DRM||

    Predators of endangered fish are turned into delicious organic free-range meat?

  • juris imprudent||

    Self-righteous environ-weenies almost succeed in killing themselves?

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    "there is an exception: the United States, the only one of the 62 petroleum-producing nations that allows private entities to control large amounts of oil and gas reserves."

    That made me smile. We have huge problems, but we also get some of it right, as well.

  • Irish||

    That also explains why the U.S. is one of the only oil producing countries that hasn't suffered from the economic stagnation that oil discoveries often cause. When a country has a ton of oil and the government nationalizes it, other segments of the economy tend to be willfully sacrificed to the oil gods.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Are you sure about that statement? In Canada it is the provincial governments that own the stuff underground...but companies can and do buy it I believe. We haven't had the kind of stagnation mentioned by Irish either.

  • BigT||

    And if methane hydrates can be produced at a reasonable cost,

    Before anyone invests in methane hydrates, be aware that these are mostly ice and much less methane. And in order to release the methane the ice has to be melted, requiring lots of energy. In fact, more energy than in the methane. There may be clever ways to melt the ice by transporting warmer water from the surface, but that too requires lots of energy. Big Oil has been on this for 20+ years.

    -BigT: 30 year veteran of oil and natural gas R&D

  • scareduck||

    Yes. This.

    Another issue that really needs to be brought up in these discussions is that this is functionally like mining much more than oil or gas drilling. Also, exploration is really, really hard because these are not like typical reservoirs. We don't know how to find them in the first place; it's more like stumbling into them.

    Methane clathrate exploitation has been a great hope for a long time. I expect it will stay in the future permanently.

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