Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Coming Methane Hydrate Revolution?

Buring HydrateThe Coming Methane Hydrate Revolution?:
Over at The Atlantic Charles Mann
has a remarkably interesting article, "What
If We Never Run Out of Oil?
" detailing how researchers are
trying to tap into a vast new source of natural gas - methane
trapped in ice at the bottom of the sea. Mann opens by describing
recent efforts by Japanese scientists aboard the Chikyu research
vessel to develop ways to "mine" this form of natural gas. He then
segues to how the current fracking revolution is roiling energy
Already the petroleum industry has been convulsed by hydraulic
fracturing, or “fracking”—a technique for shooting water mixed with
sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing
previously inaccessible oil, referred to as “tight oil.” Still more
important, fracking releases natural gas, which, when yielded from
shale, is known as shale gas. (Petroleum is a grab-bag
term for all nonsolid hydrocarbon resources—oil of various types,
natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on—that companies draw
from beneath the Earth’s surface. The stuff that catches fire
around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural
, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has
the same chemical makeup no matter what the source—ordinary
petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate.) Fracking has been
attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies,
and may eventually be greatly restricted. But it has also unleashed
so much petroleum in North America that the International Energy
Agency, a Paris-based consortium of energy-consuming nations,
predicted in November that by 2035, the United States will become
“all but self-sufficient in net terms.” If the Chikyu
researchers are successful, methane hydrate could have similar
effects in Japan. And not just in Japan: China, India, Korea,
Taiwan, and Norway are looking to unlock these crystal cages, as
are Canada and the United States....
If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil
to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on
oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran,
Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia....
And if methane hydrates can be produced at a reasonable cost,
switching from coal and oil to natural gas could help reduce
globe-warming greenhouse gas emissions. However, cheap plentiful
natural gas would slow the adoption of more costly no-carbon forms
of energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear. As Mann observes...
...natural gas plays two roles. To politicians and economists,
it is a vehicle for reasserting American might—cheap energy that
will liberate the United States from foreign petroleum. To
environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel, a substitute for
coal and oil that will serve until—but only until—the world can
move to zero-carbon energy sources: sunlight, wind, tides, waves,
and geothermal heat.
In the short run, these visions are compatible. Although the
cost of renewable energy is falling rapidly, it is not yet
equivalent to the cost of energy from fossil fuels. As an example,
typical solar cells today have an EROEI of about 10—better than tar
sands but worse than most oil and gas. (All such estimates are
rough in the extreme, because the output of renewables, unlike that
of petroleum, depends on where they are located. One recent
estimate put the EROEI of Spain’s extensive solar-power network at
less than 3.) Many advocates for solar power believe that its EROEI
will match that of fossil fuels within a decade.
The whole
Mann article
is well worth your attention.