The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
A Song of Fire Ice

Gaia seems to like fossil fuels much more than many of her followers. Earlier today, Japan announced that it successfully accessed ocean deposits of a new, relatively clean-burning, and hyper-abundant energy source: fire ice. More accurately called methane hydrate, fire ice exists under Arctic permafrost and deep underwater, primarily on seabeds along continental shelves. Up to this point it has seemed out of reach. Not anymore, the FT reports:

Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corp said on Tuesday it had successfully extracted gas from deposits of methane hydrate…Other countries, including the US and Canada, are also conducting research on methane hydrate, which experts say is at least twice as plentiful as all known reserves of natural gas.

Methane has previously been extracted from methane hydrate buried deep under Arctic permafrost, but not from ocean deposits. The substance is formed by a combination of high pressures and cold temperatures. To produce usable gas, methane is separated from from a “cage” of ice by sucking out seawater to lower the surrounding pressure. One cubic foot of solid methane hydrate yields about 164 cubic feet of gas.

Greens will already be familiar with this compound, as it plays a key role in many global warming nightmare scenarios. In the worst-case, this is how it would work: greenhouse gasses warm the earth, raising the temperature of the oceans. As the temperature rises, the “ice cages” trapping methane on our seabeds melts. The methane then makes its way into our atmosphere, further warming our earth, creating a positive feedback loop of destructive warming.

This is certainly enough to strike fear into the hearts of us all. Fortunately there’s a way around this problem. Methane is one of the world’s most powerful greenhouse gasses—about 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide—but when burned, it is cleaner than both coal and oil. By purposefully accessing these methane hydrates, we could potentially stave off this feedback loop and provide the world with a new energy source at the same time. Still, the stakes are high. Mistakes during drilling could leak methane into the atmosphere with potentially severe consequences.

In the end, Japan’s work in this field is good news. This is still a very new technology, and it is likely to become significantly safer the more we learn and study it. More R&D needs to go into the technology supporting offshore drilling for methane hydrates before we can seriously consider doing this, but the potential is certainly there.

The energy revolution just keeps getting better.

[Gas fire image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Published on March 12, 2013 6:35 pm