There’s a whole lot of methane in them thar seafloor. But is it good as gold or fool’s gold
Remember when shale gas was the next big thing? The game changer that would revolutionize the energy world, providing Americans with an abundant source of clean, environmentally friendly fuel?
Shale gas, undoubtedly, has turned out to be a big thing. Natural gas production has been steadily climbing since 2006, and natural gas prices are so low that gas is displacing dirty coal as the fuel of choice in our power plants.
But, with concerns over water pollution and air pollution from the process of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) — and global warming impacts (conceivably as bad as or even worse than coal) from natural gas leakages from the extraction and piping of the fuel — the bona fides of shale gas as an environmentally friendly fuel has been pretty well tarnished.
Now a new source of natural gas threatens to take shale’s position as the ultimate energy game changer of our times: methane hydrates.
Methane Hydrates: A Veritable Gold Mine?
A methane hydrate is an ice-like cage of water molecules in which a molecule of methane is trapped. Methane hydrates form at low temperatures and high pressures like those found below water depths of about 500 meters off the coasts of continents, in seafloor sediments and in permafrost. (More here, here and here.)
And here’s the thing. Geologists estimate that there are enormous quantities of methane stored in the ocean bottom as hydrates. How much is enormous? Would about twice the amount of carbon that is found in all the other fossil fuels meet the enormous criteria? (See here, here and here.)
But having a huge resource of methane sitting on the ocean floor is one thing; being able to extract the stuff economically and bring it to the surface is another. Just look how long it took for the commercial shale gas boom to develop. Decades from the time the first well was fracked.
And as the Deepwater Horizon blowout and its ongoing ripple effects highlight, moving into new areas of energy extraction is no easy task and could be fraught with accidents waiting to happen. (An interesting aside: methane hydrates compounded the tricky business of trying to seal the Deepwater Horizon leak.)
So economics, technology and scientists’ relatively poor understanding of methane hydrates have seemingly conspired to keep the natural gas locked in these hydrates at bay … until just about now.
Move Over, Shale. Methane Hydrates’ Turn?
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