The abundant fossil fuel you’ve never heard of
At the edges of the Alaskan permafrost, a consortium of government and oil industry scientists are preparing to drill. They aim to tap one of the largest potential energy sources ever discovered, and one that few people have ever heard of: flammable ice crystals packed with hydrocarbons, called methane gas hydrates.Skip to next paragraph
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The project, a joint effort between BP, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the Department of Energy is set to begin in late 2009 or 2010 and marks the first large-scale production test of this unconventional substance. The group is nearing agreement on a drill site. [Editor's note: The original version called BP by its old name.]
Hydrates have been hailed as a paradigm shift in how to achieve energy independence and as a massively abundant source of cleaner-burning natural gas. Others fear it represents an environmental disaster in the making. Until recently it was thought too dangerous and too costly to extract to be of use.
That view is beginning to change. In a recently released report, the USGS for the first time announced details of large hydrate reserves in the Alaskan permafrost that should be recoverable using existing technology. The vast field could hold as much as 85 trillion cubic feet of gas – an amount far less than the dream scenarios put forward in the past, but still massive. Even more important, such movement makes the possibility of getting at the mother lode of hydrate resources – those located offshore – increasingly realistic.
“I never thought this would happen so quickly,” says Carolyn Ruppel, a USGS research geophysicist who was heavily involved in prior hydrate research expeditions, referring to the planned production test. While the number of proposed drilling programs is small and significant obstacles remain, “there has been a real change these past four years,” Dr. Ruppel says. “It’s partially from market pressures.”
Underlying the interest in hydrates is their astonishing abundance – and the fact that they exist domestically in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Their appeal is even greater for countries like Japan and India, which have strained oil or gas reserves but abundant hydrate deposits offshore.
A survey of hydrate estimates published in 2007 put US reserves at around 5,700 trillion cubic feet: “Even this later figure ... is [about] 150 times the 95-percent-
confidence-level estimate of US conventional natural gas reserve,” survey author Ruppel wrote, “and [about] 900 times the current annual gas consumption in the US.”
Major hydrate research programs have cropped up in resource-constrained countries like South Korea, India, China, and – most notably – Japan, where Edie Allison of the Department of Energy estimates the government has sunk about $200 million into hydrate research. In 2007, Japan partnered with Canada to conduct a six-day production test in the permafrost to gain technical knowledge that could help fuel efforts to tap Japan’s vast undersea hydrate resources, perhaps the only major hydrocarbon reservoir that country has left.
The results were encouraging, but still an order of magnitude away from justifying large-scale commercial exploitation, says Gordon Pospisil, technology and resource manager for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., which is leading the 2009 Alaskan production test. Production would need to be “about a thousand times higher for this to be clearly economical.”