Methane hydrate technology fuels a new energy regime – by Neil Reynolds (Globe and Mail – May 16, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

In a joint announcement two weeks ago, the United States and Japan (along with ConocoPhillips, the U.S.-based multinational oil company) announced the world’s first successful field trial (in Alaska) of a technology that uses carbon dioxide to free natural gas from methane hydrates – the globally abundant hunks of porous ice that trap huge amounts of natural gas in deposits, onshore and offshore, around the world. It’s a neat feat. You use CO2, which isn’t wanted, to produce natural gas, which is. But it’s more than neat – much more.

Methane hydrates constitute the world’s No. 1 reservoir of fossil fuel. Ubiquitous along vast stretches of Earth’s continental shelves, they hold enough natural gas to fuel the world for a thousand years – and beyond. Who says so? Using the most conservative of assumptions, the U.S. Geological and Geophysical Service says so.

The U.S. now produces 21 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas a year. But it possesses 330,000 tcf of natural gas in its methane hydrate resource – theoretically enough to supply the country for 3,000 years (give or take). Using less conservative numbers (for example, a methane hydrate resource of 670,000 tcf), the U.S. is good to go for 6,000 years (give or take).

Worldwide, methane hydrate reserves add 1,000,000 tcf to the global natural gas resource. We have a ways to go before commercial exploitation begins but the question must now be asked: Isn’t it time to relax a bit about peak oil – or, for that matter, peak primary energy? We are not apt to run out of carbon to burn for a very long time. It is true: Only a fraction of these resources can be deemed economic in the near term. But a fraction of them could still deliver plentiful energy for many centuries.

According to one conservative academic calculation, Earth’s conventional reserves of natural gas hold 96 billion tonnes of carbon. Earth’s reserves of oil contain 160 billion tonnes. Earth’s reserves of coal contain 675 billion tonnes: Taken together, 931 billion tonnes of fossil fuel. But Earth’s methane hydrates contain 3,000 billion tons of carbon.

Or more. Methane hydrates are found at larger and larger volumes the deeper you drill. ConocoPhillips drilled 830 metres for its field test at Prudhoe Bay. At this level, you calculate the reservoir of methane gas in the hundreds (100s) of trillions of cubic feet (tcf). Drill deeper and you calculate reserves in the thousands (1,000s) of trillion cubic feet. Drill deeper still and you calculate reserves in the hundred-thousands (100,000s) of trillion cubic feet. Earth’s reserves of this resource could theoretically reach millions (1,000,000s) of trillion cubic feet.

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