Sparks About Gas

Are methane hydrates the new shale gas?

 By Mike Scott
About gas

In the wake of the tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant and shut down the rest of Japan’s nuclear industry, the country, which has few natural resources of its own, became the world’s largest importer of natural gas imports, accounting for about a third of global demand

While the impact of these imports has eased as more gas supplies have come on to the world market and prices have fallen, they are an uncomfortable reminder of Japan’s energy dependence. But a solution may be at hand, in the form of methane hydrates.
Methane hydrate occurs in all of the oceans as well as on land, in Arctic permafrost regions. It is believed that deposits of methane hydrate, which are very energy-dense, are larger than all of the world’s other oil, gas and coal deposits combined and so they have aroused the interest of several countries that lack access to other hydrocarbon resources.
Japan has an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of methane hydrate reserves, or at least a decade’s worth of gas. However, they are not easy to get at—they are molecules of methane trapped in ice crystals and are found at the bottom of the world’s oceans. To release the gas, the hydrates have to be either warmed or depressurized. Unsurprisingly, they are difficult and expensive to extract and capture.

Structure of a gas hydrate block embedded in the sediment of hydrate ridge (Wusel007, Wikimedia)

Nonetheless, Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) has conducted tests to see if it can exploit the resource, first in 2013 and then again earlier this year. Having confirmed the production of gas, ANRE says it hopes to see private sector commercial projects by the mid-2020s.

China is also conducting tests that have proved promising and the U.S. Geological Survey announced that large deposits have been found in the Indian Ocean, while in the US, research has been carried out on deposits from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska. India and South Korea, which also lack significant oil and gas reserves, are also interested in the technology.
If any or all of these countries manage to commercially exploit methane hydrates, it could revolutionize global energy markets, disrupting not just gas markets but also the coal and oil sectors.

However, there are doubts as to whether this is possible—not just because of the technical challenges but also because there is a global glut of gas coming onto the market from Australia, the US, Africa and elsewhere—that is keeping prices low and making it harder for the nascent technology to compete. There is a lot of gas available from other sources, both conventional and alternative resources such shale gas, that is much easier and cheaper to exploit, and this is being facilitated by the deepening of global gas markets.
BP predicts that the LNG market will grow seven times faster than gas delivered by pipeline to account for almost half of all gas delivered, up from around a third now. “The significance of the growing importance of LNG-based trade is that, unlike pipeline gas, LNG cargoes can be redirected to different parts of the world in response to regional fluctuations in demand and supply,” the company says. “As a result, gas markets are likely to become increasingly integrated across the world.”

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (Presidencia de la República Mexicana, Wikimedia)

Coming the other way is the growing trend in most of the major economies of decarbonizing their energy systems as part of the Paris Agreement. This is becoming much more feasible as a result of dramatic cost falls in all types of renewable technology in the last few years, as well as the rapid development of energy storage technology, which enables the use of intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind.

The Paris Agreement pushes governments in the direction of renewables and other low-carbon technologies rather than gas, which suggests there may be limited traction for widespread exploitation of methane hydrates, not least because there is much more potential for the methane to escape into the ocean and the atmosphere than supplies that are locked underground. This is a particular concern because methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more powerful than carbon dioxide.
However, a number of countries without other gas resources are hoping that today’s baby steps will be the start of a process that allows methane hydrates to follow the same path as fracking and to become a cost-competitive source of fuel. Many of them are heavy coal users, so this need not be an environmental catastrophe if the gas replaces coal. On the other hand, there is a reason methane hydrates have remained unexploited for so long—it is not an easy task.

SEE MORE: Accident tolerant fuel by Michelle Leslie

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about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.