[Marxism] Methane Hydrates: U.S. in race to unlock new energy source

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Wed Apr 13 11:55:38 MDT 2005

 Methane Hydrates: U.S. in race to unlock new energy source

The Hindu

Tuesday, Apr 05, 2005
U.S. in race to unlock new energy source


"Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, he said,
and any released during production would make global warming worse."

By David Adam

NEW YORK, APRIL 4. More than a mile below the choppy Gulf of Mexico waters
lies a vast, untapped source of energy. Locked in mysterious crystals, the
sediment beneath the seabed holds enough natural gas to fuel America's
energy-guzzling society for decades, or to bring about sufficient climate
change to melt the planet's glaciers and cause catastrophic flooding,
depending on whom you are talking to.

No prizes for guessing the U.S. Government's preferred line. This week, it
will dispatch a drilling vessel to the region, on a mission to bring this
virtually inexhaustible new supply of fossil fuel to power stations within a

High stakes

The ship will hunt for methane hydrates, a weird combination of gas and
water produced in the crushing pressures deep within the earth - literally,
ice that burns.

The stakes could not be higher: scientists reckon there could be more
valuable carbon fuel stored in the vast methane hydrate deposits scattered
under the world's seabed and Arctic permafrost than in all of the known
reserves of coal, oil and gas put together.

"The amount of energy there is just too big to ignore," said Bahman Tohidi,
head of the centre for gas hydrate research at Heriot Watt University in
Edinburgh. "It's not easy, but it's not something we can say we can't do, so
let's forget about it."

Japan, India and Korea, as well as the United States, are investing millions
of pounds in hydrate research.

Ray Boswell, who heads the hydrate programme at the U.S. department of
energy's national energy technology laboratory, said the U.S. was determined
to be the first to mine the resource.

"Commercially viable production is definitely realistic within a decade. The
world is investing in hydrates, and one reason for us to do this is to
maintain our leadership position in this emerging technology."

Its new project will see the drilling vessel Uncle John spend about a month
in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will bore down to two of the largest
expected methane hydrate deposits in the region. Scientists on the ship will
collect samples for experiments to see how the methane might be freed and
transported to the surface.

A hard task

This is harder than it sounds. In some deposits the crystals occur in thick
layers, in others they are found as smaller nuggets. Puncture one hydrate
reservoir and the giant release of gas can disrupt drilling, pierce another
and getting the methane out is like sucking porridge through a straw.

This unpredictable nature means energy companies traditionally view hydrates
as a nuisance. This gives them a joint interest with the U.S. Government as
both sides want to know where the crystals are - one to avoid them and the
other to exploit them.

Mr Boswell said: "We have a marriage of near-term industry interests and
longer-term Government interests. If they develop the ability to detect
hydrates for the purpose of avoiding them, that's useful for people who want
to do the exact same thing for the purpose of finding them."

Devinder Mahajan, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's laboratory in
Brookhaven, is looking for ways to encourage subsea hydrate deposits to
release their methane.

He has developed a pressurised tank that allows scientists to study hydrate
formation. "You fill the vessel with water and sediment, put in methane gas
and cool it down under high pressure. After a few hours, the hydrates form,
you can actually see it. They look like ice, but they're not," he said.
"This is a very important issue, tied to our future national energy

Hydrates on land are easier to get at, and in 2003, a team of oil companies
and scientists from Canada, Japan, India, Germany and the U.S. showed it was
possible to produce methane from the icy deposits below Canada's Northwest

BP and the U.S. Government are carrying out similar experiments in Alaska.

Opposition from Greens

Environmental groups oppose attempts to extract methane from hydrate

Roger Higman, a climate change campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said:
"The Americans are desperately looking around trying to boost their fossil
fuels because they think the oil is going to run out or there's going to be
a scarcity. The actual scarcity is in the space the atmosphere has for
taking the carbon dioxide that burning methane produces."

He added: "We already have enough fossil fuel in the world that, if burnt,
will ruin the world's climate. Rather than look for more, we need to keep
the oil, gas and coal we already know about underground and develop
alternative sources of energy, principally renewables."

Paul Johnston, a scientist in the Greenpeace laboratory at Exeter
University, warned that disturbing hydrate deposits under the seabed was a
risky strategy.

"There are legitimate concerns that attempts to tap into these reserves
could cause very widespread destabilisation of the seabed and damage to
ecosystems," he said.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, he said,
and any released during production would make global warming worse.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Copyright C 2005, The Hindu.

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