A Song of Ice and Fire
Japan Strikes It Rich (Again) with Offshore Gas

Japan announced this week that it’s successfully tapping so-called “fire ice” for the second time. It’s been a few years since we’ve heard anything about the country’s quest to find and extract natural gas from methane hydrates along the sea floor, but that lack of news hasn’t been for lack of trying, and we’re now learning that a gas is flowing from a second exploratory well off Japan’s coast. The FT reports:

The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation said it was flaring gas from the drillship Chikyu after methane began to flow from its test well in the Nankai Trough, off the coast of Mie prefecture in central Japan.

It marks Japan’s first experiment with methane hydrates since its initial, partially successful test sent a tremor through the global energy industry in 2013.

If the test well meets its goal and keeps the gas flowing for four weeks, it would be a big step towards the technical viability of extracting giant reservoirs of gas trapped in ice crystals below permafrost at the bottom of the world’s oceans.

There’s a lot of gas trapped in those “ice cages” of the methane hydrates, enough to equal at least 10 years of the country’s current domestic gas production. That’s great news for Japan, which has to rely on imports for most of its energy needs, a fact that is as unwanted for geopolitical reasons as it is for economic ones.

There’s another interesting twist to this story. Methane hydrates are one of the most feared unknowns in climate science. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas (though it dissipates more quickly than CO2), and there is concern that as surface temperatures rise and oceans warm, the ice lattice structures trapping all of that methane on our planet’s sea floors will melt, eventually leading to a large spike in atmospheric methane (and more warming). If we’re able to extract that methane first, though, we’ll not only be accessing new reserves of the most climate friendly fossil fuel around, we could also be staving off a grim positive feedback loop.

Japan’s experience will be watched closely here in the United States not only because of our interest in our ally’s energy security, but also because large reserves of these underwater gas deposits can be found off America’s Atlantic coast. The 21st century can already be characterized as a time of energy abundance (thank you shale), but this “fire ice” could keep the good times going.

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