The talk a few years ago about an imminent peak in oil and gas production was proven incorrect by the technological strides made to access shale oil and gas resources. It seems that governments, exploration companies, and even the United Nations are striving to make the next technological leap – this time into accessing the gas resources available in methane hydrates. These are frozen combinations of gas and water that are stable at high pressures and low temperatures, found in Polar Regions and on the seabed (mostly shallow waters near continents and on continental slopes).
The most easily exploitable concentrated methane hydrates are in places like the Alaskan North Slope, North West Canada, the Gulf of Mexico and in the waters around Japan. These can be exploited using “adaptations of conventional hydrocarbon recovery methods”, and may contain over 1,200 trillion cubic metres of gas, which is only 5% of the estimated overall amount of gas hydrates globally. As some of these areas already have extensive exploration and production infrastructures in place, it may become feasible to cost effectively utilize at least some of this resource. Given that British Petroleum estimates current proven natural gas reserves at less than 200 trillion cubic feet, the scale of the methane hydrate resource is quite incredible. Even if a little over 10% of the most easily accessible hydrates can be successfully exploited, the result would be a doubling of proven reserves.
When methane is burnt it results in significantly less carbon dioxide emissions than coal, and slightly less than oil. The problem is that it is a very light gas which easily escapes into the atmosphere, and its global warming impact is over 80 times that of carbon dioxide in the first two decades after release. For a world rapidly approaching climate change tipping points any significant increases in atmospheric methane may therefore seal humanity’s fate. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, the general leakiness of natural gas (which is predominantly methane) production and transportation facilities renders it at least as bad, if not worse than, coal once the methane leaks are taken into account. As he puts it “our leaders thought fracking would save the planet, they were wrong, very wrong”. Natural gas, whether from shale gas deposits or methane hydrates is not a lower climate changing bridge fuel, it is simply a bridge to nowhere but climate catastrophe.
Some of the more apocalyptic scenarios for climate change rest upon the sudden release of only a tiny portion of the global methane hydrates into the atmosphere, as with the possibility of a methane release from the Arctic Ocean proposed by Peter Wadhams. So why would we want to risk such a thing by drilling directly into the stuff, when there is no available carbon budget to burn the stuff anyway? This is where the drive to support continued growth clashes with the drive to manage climate change, in effect our governments and societies are not facing up to the irreconcilable clash between the two. It is like an addict that has promised to get off the drugs, but keeps trying to find new supplies. We need to keep this stuff under the ground and under the oceans, which means not drilling for it and making sure global temperatures don’t rise far enough for it to defrost and escape directly into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this message does not seem to be getting through to governments around the world. A 2016 U.S. Department of Energy task force on research into how to exploit methane hydrates came to the conclusion that such research “should remain a DOE priority” and that “methane hydrates are presently a sizable potential energy resource and present a significant option as a long-term energy resource.” Japan is gearing up for a second wave of offshore methane production tests. Japan and South Korea are proposing to help the Philippines explore its hydrate resources, Japan and the U.S. have helped India identify possibly exploitable methane hydrates in the Indian Ocean, and China has carried out multiple hydrate drilling expeditions. Given Japan’s increased dependence on imported natural gas after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and China and India’s insatiable appetite for energy to fuel their continued growth, all of these could be highly motivated to access such resources. If the shale gas revolution in the U.S. proves to be as short-lived as individuals such as Bill Powers predict, that country could also be highly motivated to exploit its hydrate resources in the Gulf Of Mexico and Alaska. Possibly good for energy security, but not good news for climate security. If any of these countries are serious about climate change, gas hydrates should not even be under consideration.
 United Nations Environment Program (2014), Frozen Heat: A Global Outlook On Methane Gas Hydrates, UNEP. Accessible at file:///Users/rogerboyd/Downloads/GasHydrates_Sum_screen.pdf
 British Petroleum (2015), BP Statistical Review Of World Energy June 2015, British Petroleum
 Bill McKibben (2016), Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry, The Nation. Accessible at https://www.thenation.com/article/global-warming-terrifying-new-chemistry/
 Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope, Peter Wadhams (2013), Vast costs of Arctic change, Nature. Accessible at http://www.nature.com/articles/499401a.epdf?referrer_access_token=xDW3CGPyYHTfbA4CxysrTdRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0P3xBBllj1OY1TBHdaMdacJ7R8kqhf2N9NcZP_qniXYNDrPBnHJTlCMkU7EnbQRmuANDEMjTFALNOPtzbA-VX2xewn97POD839uxZ2m9dSEIn6GK4bmu7XZYSLxhjg8BjeiTBA7VwjRPujDJX53AQrC1E0zKK4YVYNMzvCTHAzuQrsHinqH0EhuQ3Ub3hLR_VJmfo7npqZBkkdcZKk4Hzm-IFfvreaJRaOL22Zg4Y9F3ulx0Je1lFzFkm-z9U0xyCUOtCga29ehNvb5KxTRSRpaC9YAvOOaeWA6z0ax2xx5H1dDqXtfD9l9WocGeomf-EQ%3D&tracking_referrer=bigthink.com
 U.S. Department of Energy (2016), Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Report of the Task Force on Methane Hydrates, US DOE. Accessible at http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/02/f29/Report%20to%20the%20Task%20Force%20on%20Methane%20Hydrate_2016-01-26_FINAL.pdf
 Takeo Kumagai (2016), Japan gears up for second offshore methane hydrate production testing, Platts. Accessible at http://www.platts.com/latest-news/petrochemicals/tokyo/japan-gears-up-for-second-offshore-methane-hydrate-21690252
 Modern Times (2016), Vast Deposits of Methane Hydrate in Benham Rise Could Turn the Philippines into a Natural Gas Exporter, Modern Times. Accessible at http://www.moderntribune.info/vast-deposits-of-methane-hydrate-in-benham-rise-could-turn-the-philippines-into-a-natural-gas-exporter/
 U.S. Geological Survey (2016), Large Deposits of Potentially Producible Gas Hydrate Found in Indian Ocean, USGS. Accessible at https://www.usgs.gov/news/large-deposits-potentially-producible-gas-hydrate-found-indian-ocean
 Yang Shengxiong et. al. (2015), Preliminary Results of China’s Third Gas Hydrate Drilling Expedition: A Critical Step From Discovery to Development in the South China Sea, U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory. Accessible at https://www.netl.doe.gov/File%20Library/Research/Oil-Gas/methane%20hydrates/MHNews_2015_December.pdf
 Bill Powers (2013), Cold, Hungry and in The Dark, Post Hypnotic Press
Photo credit: By Wusel007 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8277125