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More Fire Ice For Energy-Hungry Japan

Japan is rather desperate for domestic energy sources these days. After shuttering its nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the island country—largely bereft of oil and gas—has had to dramatically ramp up imports of liquified natural gas (LNG) to meet its energy needs, and is paying dearly for the privilege.

But there’s good news on the horizon, and it comes trapped in ice cages along the ocean floor. Methane hydrates, colloquially known as “fire ice,” is a frozen form of natural gas trapped in crystal lattices underwater. There’s a lot of it around the world, and fortunately for Tokyo, there are reserves in the Pacific, just off the coast of Japan, that were successfully tapped back in March. Now, as Reuters reports, it looks like Japan has found another source of fire ice in the Sea of Japan.

But this discovery is more of a long-term boon for Japanese energy, rather than a short-term fix—the energy consulting group IHS Cera predicts Japan could start producing natural gas from methane hydrates within 15 years, though some believe commercial production could happen as soon as 2016. That’s optimistic for the nascent energy source, but whatever happens, Japan is going to be a net energy importer for the foreseeable future.

Tokyo is blazing the trail here, and the stakes for the open-water extraction process are high—methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, so it’s important that leakages are kept to a minimum in the extraction process. Successful extraction of these methane hydrates off the coast of Japan could have much larger implications. Estimates for global reserves of fire ice vary, but are generally thought to be at least twice as much as all proven reserves of natural gas. We’ll be watching.

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