Every few decades a new energy source comes online and promises to revolutionize the way the world fuels its economies. This was true of the shift from coal and whale oil to conventional oil in the 19th and early 20th century. Then, in the 1960s and 70s came the nuclear power revolution soon followed by renewable energies –hydro, solar and wind power. The most recent and much talked about promise comes from shale gas, which threatens to drastically change global geopolitics. But that’s old news. Tomorrow’s energy revolution, many believe, will be “fire ice,” otherwise known as methane hydrates.
In March of this year, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) successfully extracted methane hydrates from offshore reservoirs. This new potential source of energy, a natural gas, could free up traditionally energy-poor countries such as Japan and South Korea, and has the potential to further sink established petro-powers, which are already threatened by cheaper LNG prices through the entry of shale gas on the market. Under JOGMEC’s program, Japan has set an ambitious target of commercial production of methane hydrates by 2018.
Methane hydrates are gas molecules trapped in ice. They occur in permafrost, on the slopes of continental plates and in the seabed usually at a depth greater than 1,600 feet (500 meters). As a result, the Arctic and the coastlines of every continent are dotted with gas reservoirs. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates there could be up to 100,000 trillion cubic feet of gas hydrates globally. While only a portion of that impressive figure is currently considered to be concentrated enough to allow for commercially viable quantities, it is a figure that dwarfs estimates of conventional gas.
A few problems have stemmed the hype. Similar to the development of other unconventional energies, the technology has not yet allowed for commercial viability of extraction– production is currently too expensive and uncompetitive. Further, converting methane hydrate from its naturally-occurring solid form, trapped in ice, into an easily extracted gas is technically difficult.
Yet the technology is slowly catching up and deep seabed mining programs are quickly becoming a new frontier for extraction of minerals and unconventional hydrocarbons. As technology progresses, deep seabed mining could provide many Asian states with the much prized energy and resource security they have long sought. Such technological advances are crucial as an estimated 99 percent of the world’s gas hydrates occur in marine sediment in the seabed.
In a world first, JOGMEC cracked one part of the problem wide open in March. The corporation successfully extracted methane hydrates from the seabed off the Japanese coast. The extraction, which took place 50 miles (80 km)from the Atsumi Peninsula and at a depth of 1,000 feet (300 meters), decreased the pressure of the methane hydrate allowing for the separation of the ice and methane, leaving a gas that could then be extracted.