Potential energy on the Hill
Jan. 10, Washington, D.C. — Methane hydrates shine as an energy alternative for the future, but in the shadows lurks the concern that these ice-like solids could also represent a significant natural hazard and possible role in global warming.
At a seminar held here, researchers associated with the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) spoke about their work on methane hydrates. This briefing was part of a seminar series held to inform members of Congress about ODP research. In part, the ODP researchers hoped to make policy-makers aware of the broader role that methane hydrates play in the environment. The hydrates have long been seen as a hazard to deep-sea oil drilling — entire oil rigs have sunk into the ocean as sediments collapsed when gas was released from the solid hydrate phase as a result of drilling.
According to Steven Holbrook, the University of Wyoming scientist who
led the session, recognition of methane hydrates as an important potential
energy resource has been one of the goals of the ODP. Current
plans for the ODP include a two-month drilling expedition in the Nankai
Trough this summer and two months off the coast of Oregon in the fall of
2001. If this potential energy source can be economically and safely
harnessed, he says, it would be a vast new fossil fuel energy source.
The solid gas hydrate form holds 164 times the volume of methane in the
gas phase. However, the cost and risk of unearthing the fragile solid
currently outweighs its energy potential.
|The “methane burp” theory (see “Evidence for a ‘methane burp,’” Geotimes,
February 2000) is a potential cause for concern in methane hydrate research
and resource development. Where the methane hydrate stability zone lies
near the continental slope it is not uncommon for disruption of the sediment
to cause fracturing of the solid lattice and significant sediment slumping,
releasing considerable amounts of methane gas into the oceans.
Methane and its oxidation product, carbon dioxide, are strong greenhouse gases and their release into the ocean could have significantly contributed to the intense global warming of the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum, as reported by Miriam Katz and colleagues in the Nov. 19, 1999, issue of Science.
Methane hydrates could provide
enormous amounts of fossil
energy, but a few slips of the
earth could release enough gas
to catapult the world into in-
Methane hydrates could provide enormous amounts of fossil energy, but a few slips of the earth could release enough gas to catapult the world into intense warming. Funding for methane hydrate energy research will, researchers hope, make great strides in improving the cost efficiency of removing the gas and in understanding the environmental impacts of accidental release.
In the crowd at the Jan. 10 session was an aide to Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), co-sponsor of recent legislation to provide the research, identification, assessment, exploration and development of methane hydrate resources.
Doyle’s bill, H.R. 1753, was passed by the House on Oct. 26 and unanimously by the Senate on Nov. 22. If signed into law, the act will direct Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson to commence a methane hydrate research and development program for the next five years.
The progress of H.R. 1753 is a good sign for the ODP, which terminates in 2003. Its successor, an international program led by the United States and Japan, needs to secure more funding. The ODP team hopes to see some of the funds directed through H.R. 1753 support their methane hydrate research.
ODP is still a long way away from acquiring the money necessary to carry its goals into the future and will rely heavily on government support.
Japan has already procured funds to start work on a ship similar in function to ODP’s drilling vessel, the JOIDES Resolution, but larger in size. The Japanese National Oil Corp., in conjunction with the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, has already begun drilling in the Nankai Trough to determine if the methane can be induced to flow into a well for use as an energy resource.
As exciting as the potential for a new fossil energy source may be,
researchers are just as interested in the potential role methane hydrates
play in global warming and environmental change. The only sure thing
to come out of the recent discussion is that more research is the only
way to go.