Geotimes Logo
   March 2000 

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-
   tense warming.

Drilling into unidentified gas hydrates can trigger sediment collapse — evidence that anthropogenic mechanisms can cause large methane releases. While Holbrook insisted that the small number of scientific research drill cores that permeate these sediments would not be a major contributor to anthropogenic methane release, he conceded that future commercial drilling to retrieve gas hydrate as an energy resource could be another issue.  Continual, accidental release could be devastating to the environment.  Unlike oil spills, where results are immediately tangible, no mechanisms exist for measuring the amount of methane released into the oceans.

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.

Laura Wright