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Methane hydrates – bigger than shale gas, “game over” for the environment?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Methane hydrate deposits could hold up to 15 times the amount of gas as the world’s shale deposits. At the same time, they represent more carbon than all of the world’s fossil fuels combined. So, it’s no wonder that the response to recent announcements by the Japanese has been a bit mixed.

Methane hydrates (a.k.a. methane clathrates or fire ice) are solid compounds where methane is literally trapped in water. The substance looks like ice and can be found deep on the ocean floor, locked under layers of sediments.

Last Tuesday, Japan announced that researchers have successfully produced natural gas from offshore methane hydrates in the the Eastern Nankai Trough. In the words of energy analyst Jesse Jenkins, this success could have explosive implications.  In his article, posted Friday on The Energy Collective, Jenkins explains his views on the impact of unlocking this resource, stating that:

“Of course, just as with shale gas, not all of this potential energy resource will prove technically recoverable. Yet if (or should we say when?) technology to commercially extract gas from hydrates is developed, the implications for global energy markets are staggering nonetheless.”

Below if a portion of his piece, which was originally published on Friday on The Energy Collective. In it, Jenkins presents the big economic and environmental considerations that have come to the forefront of the methane hydrates discussion.

“Hydrates could remake energy markets
Methane hydrates are the world’s largest source of untapped fossil energy. And they are widely distributed across the world, as indicated in the graphic from the US Geological Survey (USGS) below…

Global locations of methane hydrate despoits

…Japan is currently the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas and faces gas prices roughly four-times higher than those enjoyed in the United States. The development of hydrates could potentially erase that price differential.

“Depending on where the final cost of capturing methane hydrates ultimately rests, this can mean large reductions in natural gas prices throughout the world,” explains [Christopher] Knittel, [MIT energy Professor of energy economics].

In short, methane hydrates could once again reshape global gas markets, just as the development of shale gas has done in the last decade.

“Game over” for the climate?
While hydrate resources look like an enormous boon to energy-starved nations like Japan, all that carbon and methane has climate scientists and advocates concerned.

Developing methane hydrates would be “game over for the climate,” writes green blogger Mat McDermott.

It’s easy to see why he’d be concerned: methane hydrates contain more carbon than all the world’s other fossil resources combined, according to USGS estimates.

If developed at a significant scale, hydrates would certainly be more than enough to cook the climate.<

Depending on how cost-effective production of gas hydrates proves, this vast new fossil energy resource could lower energy prices worldwide. “These lower prices almost certainly will lead to an increase in fossil-fuel consumption on an energy basis,” says Knittel. “That’s the bad news, from a climate perspective.”

But in principle, clean-burning natural gas from hydrates could also help displace coal consumption in places like China and India, just as cheap shale gas is now driving coal out of U.S. electricity markets. That scenario could potentially yield climate benefits and cleaner air — assuming the displaced coal stays in the ground and hydrates aren’t used to simply prolong reliance on fossil fuels.

To preserve any climate benefits of this hypothetical coal-to-gas shift, hydrate drillers would also have to be wary of letting methane leak out of hydrate deposits and into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and even modest leakage rates could nix any potential climate benefit of burning gas from hydrates instead of coal…”

Methane hydrates represent a huge potential energy resource, with correspondingly significant economic and environmental impact potential. How to best manage the balance between the two is an open question that it appears that society will be facing sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: USGS and U.S. EIA

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. outsidethebox 9:33 am 03/19/2013

    It’s just amazing. Every time another source of fossil fuel energy comes along that “isn’t supposed to be there”, be it fracked natural gas, or Canadian tar sands, or now, methane hydrates, the environmentalists throw a fit. “Didn’t you believe us when we told you we past “peak energy”? Why are you producing even more of it?” Right. I’m like everyone else. I’d like to see less CO2 in the atmosphere right now, not 30 or 50 years from now. But I understand it isn’t going to happen until clean energy is cheaper and as reliable. So if you’re really serious, build nuclear, improve solar technology and wind power technology, but don’t blame fossil fuel technology for your failure to do the right thing. And don’t lie about the costs the ultimate user of that power. That customer doesn’t care about hidden costs passed on to society. He just cares about the amount flowing out of his wallet so you’ll have to keep that cost in particular down.

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  2. 2. ronwagn 10:25 am 03/19/2013

    A very good and balanced article. Natural gas can replace coal, and that is the point to take home. Solar, wind, and other variable power sources need base power, and natural gas turbines are ideal for that. Natural gas can also replace diesel and gasoline. Diesel is a known carcinogen.
    LNG can and is beginning to replace diesel in ships, locomotives, trucks, stationary engines etc. CNG and piped natural gas can also replace diesel in many applications. CNG can also replace gasoline, which is dirtier and far mor expensive. Until we replace all those natural gas is the honest and wise environmentalist’s ally. After those are replaced maybe we will have something even better, and I will immediately advocate that too! Always go with the best solution. I love solar and wind etc. but not everyone likes the visual and vibrational impact of those either.
    Nuclear cannot compete anymore, and natural gas is replacing it too.

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  3. 3. ronwagn 10:27 am 03/19/2013

    Producing and using natural gas is the best solution for base power, in conjunction with solar, wind, geothermal etc. There is plenty of natural gas all around the world, and it can be accessed with new and future technology. The main concern for environmentalists worldwide should be to cut the use of coal, especially in antiquated plants. Here are the top ten coal burners: Dead link. Just search their site. China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined.
    It is possible for the whole world to drastically cut coal burning and benefit the health of all. Coal pollution travels around the world.


    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, trucks, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It is used to make many products. It will bring jobs and boost our economy. It lowers CO2 emissions, and pollution. Over 5,600 select natural gas story links on my free blog. An annotated and illustrated bibliography of live links, updated daily. The worldwide picture of natural gas. Read in 77 nations. ronwagnersrants . blogspot . com

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  4. 4. TTLG 2:06 pm 03/19/2013

    The information that I would like to see is how much CO2 is released per BTU compared to other fossil fuels. If it is less than other sources, such as coal, then it seems to me that this resource could be a net improvement if it is used wisely and with restraint. Unfortunately, given the record, restraint is not likely to happen.

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  5. 5. sethdiyal 5:05 pm 03/19/2013

    I see Big Oil’s shill is out pushing gas again.

    Nuke power is far less dangerous and even at today’s prices – 30% the cost of production – cheaper than gas.
    Gas actually produces more GHG’s than coal when Methane leaks are added in, and while cleaner than coal still kills lots of folks with its deadly fine particulate and radon gas emissions. Methane Hydrates won’t change that.

    If proposed utility gas plants were required to include a guaranteed gas price over the life of their plant in their proposals to regulators, no gas power plants would ever be built.

    Gas is 100% dependent on the purchase of our 100% corrupt politicians and media for its existence. It will take the destruction of Western economies by penny a kwh BRIC country advanced nuclear before we can throw off the yoke of Big Oil corruption and join their nuclear dirt cheep clean energy future.

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  6. 6. KRLang 5:07 pm 03/19/2013

    Good article. The challenge with hydrates is that the deposits that can be relatively easily accessed and potentially produced are concentrated accumulations in highly permeable sandstone intervals beneath the permafrost in Arctic regions and similar permeable sediments in deep water. Both of these are expensive places to work, but the physics of production are not that extremely different from conventional natural gas production. Figuring out how to capture hydrate that is widely disseminated in finer grained sediments in deep water is a real technical challenge. And there are large volumes of natural gas yet to be developed in other places (shales, tight sands) that can be produced much less expensively. If people can figure out how to get 80% of the shale gas out instead of 10%, it will have a much bigger immediate impact on the supply of natural gas in our lifetimes.

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  7. 7. alpha2actual 2:35 am 03/20/2013

    Energy density as measured by mega joules per kilogram is the only metric which is meaningful when discussing energy production. As an example, one kilogram of fissionable uranium has an energy density approximately 3.3 million times that of one kilo of natural gas. QED

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  8. 8. emperorbailey 4:01 pm 03/20/2013

    #7: Energy density is obviously not the only important thing to measure in energy production.
    -How much does it cost to extract? How much does it cost to process it into something usable by the consumer?
    -How dangerous is it to extract?
    -What impact would the use of this energy have afterwards, and for how long? Climate change effect? Radioactive waste?
    -How limited is the energy source?

    There might be some really nice, energy-dense minerals on near-Earth orbit asteroids, for example, but there would clearly be some other issues to consider before we trot off to mine them.

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  9. 9. ronwagn 7:17 pm 03/20/2013

    Big Oil, Big Nuclear, and Big Coal do not want to lose their profits to a cheaper, cleaner fuel. That fuel is natural gas,and can be gathered from many sources. God must love natural gas, because he made so much of it in so many places. We can get it from coal seams, biomass, shale, conventional and offshore drilling, and now methane hydrates. We are truly blessed. Now lets get together using it to advance the well being of mankind. There are hundreds of millions of cold and hungry people out there that could use affordable heat, transportation, lighting, products et all. Natural gas can help them meet their needs. That does not necessarily solve overpopulation, war mongering etc., but maybe we can stop warring over oil. If China, and the rest of the world, is assured of well priced natural gas it will be easier.

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  10. 10. dwbd 8:28 pm 03/20/2013

    ronwagn, do you know anything about Natural Gas? Big Oil = Big NG. The #1 NG producer in the USA is Exxon. And the former #1 Shale Gas producer is rapidly selling off its near bankrupt Shale Gas wells and switching to Oil production instead. Quite obvious you either know zip about NG or you are just a paid propagandist who could care less about truthfulness.

    And there is no “Big Nuclear”. The top Nuclear company on Earth is 440th on the Fortune 500, vs Big Oil/NG is 6 of the top 10.

    As for your wonderful GHG belching NG, the impending NG supply crunch & rapid price escalation:

    Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth:

    The coming NG price shocker:

    “…Investors have essentially subsidized natural gas through huge loss-making investments, creating an oversupply that has sent prices significantly below the average cost of new production…”

    “…Petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown of Export Land Model fame offered a startling response in a conversation at a recent conference I attended. The production decline rates of the shale gas wells that are providing the bulk of new U.S. supplies are so high—60 percent in the first year and up to 85 percent by the end of the second year—that we may never be able to return to today’s production level.

    That would certainly put a nail in the coffin of the natural gas abundance narrative…”

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  11. 11. alpha2actual 7:17 am 03/22/2013

    ronwagan I find it interesting that you are concerned about the millions of inhabitants of the third world insofar as the Rachel Carlson/Margaret Sanger wing of the modern Environmental movement has managed to murder tens of million of them with the restrictions on the deployment of DDT.

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  12. 12. Ungolythe 4:10 am 03/24/2013

    alpha2actual, I find it interesting that you would spout such nonsense when you probably well know that the idea that a ban on widespread usage of DDT in the USA has no impact on deaths attributed to malaria, the vast majority of whom are not in regions where DDT is banned. Of course, just keep saying it as if it were true and eventually a few people might believe you.

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  13. 13. walrusgumbo 8:18 am 03/27/2013

    The problem with Nuclear is that, sure, once you are generating the power itself, it’s pretty clean. However, in order to get the fuel itself you need to refine it, and the process of refining any REE out there is so bad for the environment that we tend to outsource the process to China, (they’re the only game in town with environmental regulations lax enough for it to go through).

    Methane Hydrates are something we should all be excited about. If anything is going to end Climate Change, it’s them. The mere act of mining them actually reduces a huge outpouring of methane that would bring about REAL problems. (Methane is MUCH worse for the climate than the CO2 we would produce by burning it).

    People who talk about Climate Change always mention dire consequences if the sea temperature rises. That consequence involves all of the aforementioned methane hydrates degassing. We really have no idea what would happen, it ranges from “nothing” to “a repeat of the Permian-Triassic Extinction”.

    Either way: the energy companies are going to change their tone. Now instead of trying to weaken climate regulation, they’ll have a stake in strengthening it: they will be protecting their investment. If the sea temperature rises, they will lose out on an unspeakable sum of money. Plus: China is in on this. Say what you want about Methane, it’s a much cleaner power source than Coal. If China switches from Coal to Natural Gas, the biggest polluter in the world will be much, much cleaner.

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 2:57 pm 03/29/2013

    Debate all you want but I doubt Japan gives much weight to the rantings of a bunch of “round eyed foreigners”. I say more power to them and if they have to move to higher elevations then so be it.

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  15. 15. ultimobo 7:37 am 05/22/2013

    the obvious endless (in our millenia) safe energy supply is solar – but this is resisted by fossil fuel companies as once you buy a solar panel, you buy less energy from fossil sources – and that would be bad for fossil-sucker profits

    I’m hopeful that a recent research breakthrough in solar cell cost-efficiency will provide just the boost needed for a push to clean energy and stop paying those who are happy to destroy our environment as long as they make a personal profit.

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