Japan Plans to Drill for Plentiful Underwater Methane

By Andrew Moseman | September 28, 2010 6:19 pm

methanehydrateJapan doesn’t have much oil, leaving the island nation heavily depended upon imports. What it does have, though, is natural gas—far under the sea in methane hydrate formations. The country said this week that it is going after those deposits, drilling test wells next year with the intention of beginning extraction before the decade is out.

What makes methane hydrate unique is that it is a seemingly frozen and yet flammable material. Formed in cold, high-pressure environments, it is found throughout the world’s oceans as well as under the frozen ground of countries with high latitudes. While global estimates vary considerably, the U.S. Department of Energy says, the energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is “immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels.” [UPI]

No one has yet pursued hydrates in a major commercial way, so their enormous potential sits untapped. Japan succeeded with a test well in Canada two years ago, and now aims to test near its home shores.

A consortium led by the Japanese government and the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (Jogmec) will be sinking several wells off the south-eastern coast of Japan to assess the commercial viability of extracting gas from frozen methane deep beneath local waters. Surveys suggest Japan has enough methane hydrate for 100 years at the current rate of usage. [The Guardian]

But with high reward comes high risk. We’ve covered numerous times in the last couple years scientists worried that a warming ocean could unexpectedly release some of that methane, which would not be good news. When we burn methane for energy and call it natural gas, it produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal. But methane itself, should it escape, is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And some environmentalists are concerned that drilling could

inadvertently [set] off undersea landslides, which could wipe out nearby seafloor life, and uncontrollable methane leaks from destabilized gas and hydrate formations. Massive eruptions of methane gas from melting or collapsing undersea hydrates have occurred naturally in the distant past as a result of rapid climate warming, studies have shown. [The New York Times]

There are methane hydrate deposits off the Indian, Russian, and Chinese coasts, too, as well as elsewhere in the world. So if Japan takes the dive, the gas rush could be on. On the land, the United States is one nation rich in shale gas, another voluminous but difficult to reach source of natural gas. Vast formations of such shale stretch beneath Arkansas, Texas, and the northern Appalachians. Shale rock is not porous, though, so it’s hard to suck the gas out of there, and extraction often requires controversial hydraulic fracturing.

The upshot is, natural gas is going to be an increasingly large part of the energy future. And though it’s the cleanest-burning of the fossil fuels, it’s still a fossil fuel. For this reason many energy gurus like T. Boone Pickens praised natural gas as a bridge fuel to truly clean energy. But with so much of it to be had, it’s easy to image the world’s powers going ga-ga for gas at the expense of renewables development.

Back to the danger, and one thing that doesn’t make me feel encouraged:

“Can environmental disaster happen by gas hydrate production? The answer is no,” Koji Yamamoto, a project director for the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, told The Asia Times in December 2009. [The New York Times]

Yamamoto continues (in the Asia Times story):

“Methane hydrate consists of pure water and methane, and no harmful substances. Some people are also afraid of a chain chemical reaction” in the extraction process, Yamamoto said. “However, it never happens. The gas hydrate is quite stable material … Geological events of massive gas hydrate dissociation might be caused by changes in global scale ocean conditions. Artificial gas production is a completely different phenomenon.”

Problem #1: Saying that methane isn’t “harmful” is like saying (a la Michele Bachman) that carbon dioxide isn’t bad because it’s natural. As with carbon dioxide, it’s not about come molecule somehow possessing a mystical essence of good or evil: it’s a matter of concentration, and higher concentrations of atmospheric methane would be bad news for us humans.

Problem #2: Many oceanographers would say that the ocean is changing on a global scale, which is why some of them are so freaked out about hydrate dislocation.

Problem #3: No, local drilling probably won’t cause global Armageddon. We certainly hope not, anyway. But because of the undersea prize to be pursued, hydrate extraction could soon be a global industry, and the implications of that remain unknown.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: 10 Ways Methane Could Brake Global Warming–Or Break the Planet
DISCOVER: If Life Gives You Methane, Make Methane Energy
80beats: Methane Seeps From the Arctic Seabed, Spooking Climate Scientists
80beats: Globe-Warming Methane Is Gushing From a Russian Ice Shelf
80beats: Will Methane Gas in Gulf Waters Create a Massive Dead Zone?

Image: USGS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
  • Dennis Denuto

    Andrew

    on #1 – yes, that does sound problematic. I think the point is that a lot of folks think that the methane in hydrates is something unknown and exotic, whereas its the same methane that is currently getting pumped at a rate of 450 TgC/y into the atmosphere, largely from termites and cows…whereas what comes from the ocean now is <20.

    on #2 – some are freaked out, and some are not.
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/03/arctic-methane-on-the-move/

    calling what happened in the past "massive eruptions" is a tad loose and sensationalistic. More like accelerated release over 10,000 year periods or so. But, the main issue with your problem is that there is no connection, no causal link, and no clear path for interaction between potential hydrate production and the global ocean change you mention. To believe there is one, you have to hold to the idea that the drilling will lead to some mass destabilization and release. But no one has explained how one could possibly lead to the other. In fact, if gas displaces some coal, the correlation could even be negative.

    on #3 – agreed, the implications are unknown…but I do know folks are studying it. Perhaps you could talk to them and get their views.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    Dennis,

    Thanks for the comment. Indeed, Re: number 2, Realclimate makes a good point that we ought to be more worried about CO2 rather than methane, the “radical wing.” I merely meant to point out that the ocean is changing on a global scale in temperature and acidity, which does have some researchers—like those covered in the past stories—worried about the hydrates.
    But is there evidence that commercial hydrate production will cause hydrate dislocation or contribute to global ocean change? As you say, no.

  • Nemesis

    Won’t they need to replace the gas with something else? If so: what? -Salt water from the oceans? I guess that would be one way to counter the rising oceans caused by melting glaciers- just send some of it underground. It doesn’t seem like we need to create vast empty pockets under our oceans, considering the other inherent risks of drilling for gas.

  • Dennis Denuto

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the post. Quite well balanced.

    Yes, it is changing on a global scale. But note, the Earth has experience very dramatic temperature-climate changes. The end of each ice age, for example, brought on significant warming, but with no discernable response from gas hydrates…

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/311/5762/838
    http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/April/23040902.asp

    …to find the last time there may have been a discernable response one needs to go back to the end of Paleocene (55 million years ago). At that time, the Arctic Ocean was a big duckweed pond. Very warm. At that time, Hydrate may have responded enought to add an incremental warming on the warming that was already occuring for other reasons. So it takes a very very big event. If we are poised for another such big event, then (as RealClimate points out) we are already in mess of trouble.

    But if hydrate can help nations like China, Japan, India, Korea make there fuel mix a bit less carbon intensive, that is absolute a good thing, environmentally speaking. Its a shame this global meltdown theme has such appeal, it is really distracting to the bigger issues, IMO.

  • Uncle B

    Such a plentiful world! We have oil for the Americans of course . . . Then Solar, Wave, Wind, Hydro, Tidal Geothermal, Nuclear , and now Methane form the oceans! No need for War! America! let Afghanistan and the pipeline for Halliburton go! You don’t need war as badly as you need to develop known technologies! Give up your oil obsessions! Go for the perpetual energies! Go for Solar, Wave, Wind Hydro, Geothermal! all renewable – none polluting! no more breast cancer in American women! imagine the great civilization you can found! Rid yourselves of Corporatism, the tool of big oil that entraps you! Let big coal flounder! Support the perpetual energies God has given you!Even tiny Japan is getting away from oil! Lead them to Solar, Wind Wave, Hydro, Geothermal and away from poisonous Uranium practices! Fluoride Thorium bed reactors from India show the new nuclear way! Leave your bomb-factory reactors, forsake them for higher energy producing clean reactors! Let the rest of the world move forward! Show the way! With clean reactors!
    Methane from the seas makes for CO2 when burnt – not good for Global Warming at all! Try for Electric world with rechargeable battery transportation to compliment nuclear/electric sourced electric bullet train networks as proliferate Asia from China today!Help the world avoid fossil fuels and their global impact! Warming is a reality! Ask the Canadian aborigines! they will tell you in simple terms!

  • Wolfie52

    The PETM ( Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum- mass extinction, 55 million years ago) was likely caused by massive releases of Methane HYDRATES from the oceans, due to global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius! It took 50 MILLION years for life on earth to recover from this “minor extinction” event. Also there are more METHANE HYDRATES in the oceans today then there was 55 million years ago.

    Beware of unintended consequences!

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