The New Prize: Asia’s “Fire Ice” Gas Revolution

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The New Prize: Asia’s “Fire Ice” Gas Revolution

“The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates there could be up to 100,000 trillion cubic feet of gas hydrates globally.”

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.

But, while Japan is the first to successfully extract methane hydrates, it isn’t the only country studying them. China, Norway, Russia, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Canada, India and the U.S. have all started their own research programs. Collaboration has been the order of the day and has been spearheaded by agreements between the U.S., Canada, Japan, and South Korea.

Successful commercial extraction of methane hydrates could mean big changes in Asia. For Japan it could usher in long sought after energy security – a catalyst for Tokyo’s involvement in World War Two, argues Daniel Yergin, a leading energy analyst.

For Japan, its mid- to long-term effect, if commercial extraction does in fact begin in 2018, could be to stabilize the country’s energy sources. Since the Fukushima Daichi nuclear incident, Japan has been struggling to meet its energy demands. The country’s energy security has been crippled by political debates over the future of its 54 nuclear power plants, a debate that forced all but two reactors to go offline in 2012. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster in 2011, Japan became world’s largest LNG importer and the third largest net importer of oil. Not surprisingly, the dependence on imports and the crippling energy debates have held back Japan’s economy, which is otherwise buttressed by a low yen.

But it’s not just Japan that stands to win big if the gas can be made commercially viable. India, which currently imports the lion’s share of its oil and increasing quantities of coal and natural gas, has some of the world’s largest known deposits of gas hydrates. As India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas prepares to release the country’s new shale gas policy, methane hydrates offer yet another potential source of production.

India started its methane hydrates research program in 1997. Yet many Indian commentators are increasingly vocal that it hasn’t reaped the same successes as Japan. A 2006 U.S.-India joint venture explored large deposits around the country in the Krishna-Godavari basin, the Mahanadi basin, the Kerala-Konkan basin and the waters off the Andaman Islands. The study found the Krishna-Godavari basin to be one of the largest known gas hydrate-occurring areas in the world. Despite these findings, one of the key problems is that extraction of India’s gas resources will require different technology and more extensive research than was required for JOGMEC’s success in Japan. India will not simply be able to purchase the technology from Japan. Instead New Delhi will need to develop or adapt technology to India’s specific geology.

In 2006, Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and managing director of Reliance, a leading Indian energy company, called for a new holistic energy policy, which would include gas hydrates.

“The reserves of gas hydrates are mind boggling…These are estimated at twice the known oil and gas reserves of the world. But, again, the technological challenges are intimidating,” he said at the time. While some advances have been made, formulating any policy in India’s spider web of bureaucratic red-tape – as has been seen with the continually delayed shale gas policy – is a time consuming affair.

For Beijing, despite its National Oil Companies being more agile and better financed, it faces a similar problem in that the companies will have to develop an indigenous program for extraction of methane hydrates given the different geology of its deposits.

Much about methane hydrates remains a mystery. Perhaps, as a result, many are concerned about the hidden environmental consequences. Fears remain about the leaking of methane into the atmosphere and potential changes to the seabed. Methane has around 21 times more global warming potential as CO2, meaning it is significantly more damaging to the atmosphere. Underwater landslides have also been cited as a concern. Yet science has learnt from experience and is preempting such concerns. The JOGMEC study includes a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment, with the seven-year second phase of the program focusing on, “environmental risks such as methane leakage and seafloor deformation.”

Increasing natural gas in the global energy mix should decrease reliance on coal, which has twice the amount of carbons and produces significantly more omissions. Currently, Japan is increasing its consumption of coal to cut increasing energy costs, while coal continues to provide over half of India’s energy needs. New natural gas sources, if harnessed, could provide for reduced emissions and lessen the harmful effects of pollution in the country.

More broadly, the successful harnessing of methane hydrates, could further add weight to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a body which was indirectly set up to counter the influence of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The IEA is made up of North American, European and other states such as Japan and South Korea. On the back of increased LNG supplies from shale gas, and with the potential increases from methane hydrates, the IEA may have the energy resources to compete and pressure OPEC.

Harnessing methane hydrates would mean that Japan, and possibly South Korea, could play a bigger role in the IEA. This could have a hugely positive influence, in that it could pressure responsible action and stabilize supplies, or it could have the opposite effect, pitting the two blocs against each other. For India and China, neither of whom are members of OPEC or the IEA, they could stand to benefit from such competition.

But that is a debate more suited for the future. Reducing the extraction cost of methane hydrates is crucial to its future viability as an energy source – a technological hurdle that shale gas has recently overcome. The recent success of JOGMEC is significant and could yet be another “game changer.” Indeed, if commercial extraction of methane hydrates can be achieved in the coming five to ten years, we may see a very different energy map in Asia, which could in turn transform Asia’s interaction with the world.

Elliot Brennan is Project Coordinator at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm, Sweden, and a Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Honolulu, USA.