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Methane hydrate joins shale gas and deep sea gas

I have the following article in the Times on 15 March:


Move over shale gas, here comes methane hydrate. (Perhaps.) On
Tuesday the Japanese government’s drilling ship Chikyu started
flaring off gas from a hole drilled into a solid deposit of methane
and ice, 300 metres beneath the seabed under 1000 metres of water,
30 miles off the Japanese coast.


The real significance of this gas flare probably lies decades in
the future, though the Japanese are talking about commercial
production by 2018. The technology for getting fuel out of hydrated
methane, also known as clathrate, is in its infancy. After many
attempts to turn this “fire ice” into gas by heating it proved
uneconomic, the technology used this week – depressurizing the
stuff – was first tested five years ago in Northern Canada. It
looks much more promising.


Methane hydrate is found all around the world beneath the seabed
near continental margins as well as in the Arctic under land. Any
combination of low temperature and high pressure causes methane and
water to crystallise together in a sort of molecular lattice.
Nobody knows exactly how much there is, but probably more than all
the coal and oil put together, let alone other gas.


The proof that hydrate can be extracted should finally bury the
stubborn myth that the world will run out of fossil fuels in any
meaningful sense in the next few centuries, let alone decades. In
1866, William Stanley Jevons persuaded Gladstone that coal would
soon run out. In 1922 a United States Presidential Commission said
“Already the output of gas has begun to wane. Production of oil
cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1956, M. King Hubbert of
Shell forecast that American gas production would peak in 1970. In
1977 Jimmy Carter said oil production would start to decline in
“six or eight years”. Woops.


The key will be cost. However, Japan currently pays more than
five times as much for natural gas as America so even high-cost gas
will be welcome there. The American economy, drunk on cheap shale
gas, will not rush to develop hydrate. (Unlike oil, there is no
world price of gas because of the expense of liquefying it for
transport by ship.)

(chart from here:

The shale gas revolution is effectively already putting a
ceiling on the price of energy. America has lost its appetite for
gas imports, which now go to Europe and Asia instead, but is
gaining an appetite for exporting gas. Domestically, America’s
cheap gas has caused electricity generators to switch from coal to
gas, and buses and trucks to start switching from oil to gas. Even
if hydrate proves stubbornly expensive – and it’s generally wise
not to bet against Japanese ingenuity – it will put a roof over
this price ceiling.


Hydrate and shale are not the only new sources of gas. Thanks to
newly perfected drilling technology, new deep-sea gas fields are
coming online off Brazil, Africa, and in the eastern Mediterranean.
The days when gas production was concentrated in a few charming
places like Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Qatar are gone.


Indeed, one of the best ways to love the new gas-fired future is
to list the people who detest it. As recounted in a new documentary
film called “FrackNation”, Vladimir Putin, at a dinner with
journalists in 2011, suddenly became agitated about the supposed
devastation of Pennsylvania by shale gas industry. His new-found
concern for the Appalachian countryside might just have something
to do with the threat that shale gas poses to Gazprom’s
stranglehold on European markets.


For those still concerned about climate change, this is also
good news. In atomic terms, methane is one-fifth carbon and
four-fifths hydrogen. Not even the most die-hard environmentalist
can find anything bad to say about burnt hydrogen, or “water”.
Given that combined-cycle gas turbines run at higher
energy-conversion efficiency than coal-fired steam turbines, the
carbon dioxide output from gas-fired electricity is well below half
that of coal-fired.


Thanks to shale gas, America’s carbon dioxide emissions in
energy production have plummeted by nearly 20% in five years
without political targets or policies, while Europe’s have hardly
changed despite expensive schemes to subsidise the producers of
renewable energy and penalize fossil fuels. (Apart from hydro,
which has little capacity for expansion, and biomass, which is
environmentally worse than fossil fuels, renewable energy remains
an irrelevance in the energy debate. Even now, Britain still gets
less than one percent of its total energy from wind.)


Moreover, there is a possibility that methane hydrate could be
almost carbon neutral. The University of Bergen in Norway has
developed a process that pumps carbon dioxide into the hydrate
deposits, where it replaces the methane, turning methane hydrate
into carbon dioxide hydrate. The results from a field trial in
Alaska are expected any day. If this process can be scaled up, and
if the carbon dioxide from burning the methane could be captured
economically (big ifs), in future Japan could run on fossil fuels
but generate almost no carbon emissions.


As it takes market share from oil and coal, gas will dominate
the world’s energy supply for much of this century, before perhaps
giving way to something cheaper. That could be cheaper and safer
forms of nuclear energy based probably on thorium rather than
uranium, or maybe solar power.


Not only has cheap gas given the United States falling carbon
dioxide emissions, it has also delivered it a huge competitive
advantage in manufacturing. Firms are “re-shoring” their operations
from Europe and even China, as the low cost of American gas outbids
the low cost of Chinese labour. To be competitive, countries must
have either cheap labour or cheap energy. The European elite’s
strange determination to have neither is the root cause of its
current stagnation.


Update: Predictably one reader did indeed object to
the statement that “not even the most die-hard environmentalist can
find anything bad to say about burnt water”. Here’s my reply:

You say in response to my Times article that the production
of H2O through the burning of fossil fuels is “actually worth
worrying about”. It made me get out my calculator! I’m not much
of a physicist or mathematician, so feel free to check my

We produce about 26 billion tonnes of CO2 a year by burning
fossil fuels.

CO2 molecular weight is about 6 times that of water.

So, assuming our average fossil fuel atomic ratio is about CH2
(i.e., half way between gas and coal),

Then we produce about 9 billion tonnes of water vapour each year
by burning fossil fuels.

Total worldwide evaporation and precipitation of H2O is

1 km3 = 1.57 billion tonnes.

So 863,000 billion tonnes of water falls from the sky each

9/863,000 = c 1/100,000

So fossil fuel burning adds 0.001% to the natural water cycle.
99.999% of rainfall is natural.

Of course, local effects could be larger, but are just as likely
to be beneficial as bad, and that would make the general
effect smaller still.

“Worth worrying about”? Surely not compared with other
environmental issues?

2nd update: I made two mistakes above, according to
those with better physics knowledge than me. The molecular weight
of CO2 is 2.5 times that of water; and  1 km3 of water weighs
1 billion tonnes (of course). So the true result is that fossil
fuel burning is adding 0.002% to natural precipitation, not 0.001%.
Still well short of “worth worrying about”.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times