China, Japan extract combustible ice from seafloor

May 19, 2017 by Matthew Brown
In this May 16, 2017 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, gas flare out from a drilling platform that extracted natural gas from combustible ice trapped under the seafloor of the South China Sea. Commercial development of the globe's vast reserves of a frozen fossil fuel known as combustible ice has moved closer to reality after Japan and China successfully extracted the material from the seafloor. (Liang Xu/Xinhua via AP)

Commercial development of the globe's huge reserves of a frozen fossil fuel known as "combustible ice" has moved closer to reality after Japan and China successfully extracted the material from the seafloor off their coastlines.

But experts said Friday that large-scale production remains many years away—and if not done properly could flood the atmosphere with climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Combustible ice is a frozen mixture of water and concentrated natural gas. Technically known as methane hydrate, it can be lit on fire in its frozen state and is believed to comprise one of the world's most abundant fossil fuels.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the fuel was successfully mined by a drilling rig operating in the South China Sea on Thursday. Chinese Minister of Land and Resources Jiang Daming declared the event a breakthrough moment heralding a potential "global energy revolution."

A drilling crew in Japan reported a similar successful operation two weeks earlier, on May 4 offshore the Shima Peninsula.

For Japan, methane hydrate offers the chance to reduce its heavy reliance of imported fuels if it can tap into reserves off its coastline. In China, it could serve as a cleaner substitute for coal-burning power plants and steel factories that have polluted much of the country with lung-damaging smog.

In this May 16, 2017 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, gas flare out from a drilling platform that extracted natural gas from combustible ice trapped under the seafloor of the South China Sea. Commercial development of the globe's vast reserves of a frozen fossil fuel known as combustible ice has moved closer to reality after Japan and China successfully extracted the material from the seafloor. (Liang Xu/Xinhua via AP)

The South China Sea has become a focal point of regional political tensions as China has claimed huge swaths of disputed territory as its own. Previous sea oil exploration efforts by China met resistance, especially from Vietnam, but its methane hydrate operation was described as being outside the most hotly contested areas.

Methane hydrate has been found beneath seafloors and buried inside Arctic permafrost and beneath Antarctic ice. The United States and India also have research programs pursuing technologies to capture the fuel.

Estimates of worldwide reserves range from 280 trillion cubic meters (10,000 trillion cubic feet) up to 2,800 trillion cubic meters (100,000 trillion cubic feet), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By comparison, total worldwide production of natural gas was 3.5 billion cubic meters (124 billion cubic feet) in 2015, the most recent year available.

That means methane hydrate reserves could meet global gas demands for 80 to 800 years at current consumption rates.

Yet efforts to successfully extract the fuel at a profit have eluded private and state-owned energy companies for decades. That's in part because of the high cost of extraction techniques, which can use large amounts of water or carbon dioxide to flood methane hydrate reserves so the fuel can be released and brought to the surface.

Japan first extracted some of the material in 2013 but ended the effort due to sand from the seafloor clogging machinery, according to the country's Ministry of Economy Trade and Tourism.

In this May 16, 2017 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, workers celebrate the successful trial extraction of natural gas from combustible ice trapped under the seafloor on a drilling platform on the South China Sea. Commercial development of the globe's vast reserves of a frozen fossil fuel known as combustible ice has moved closer to reality after Japan and China successfully extracted the material from the seafloor. Flags read " China Land Resource Bureau," right, and "Guangzhou Ocean Resource Bureau." (Liang Xu/Xinhua via AP)

There are also environmental concerns.

If methane hydrate leaks during the extraction process, it can increase greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel also could displace renewables such as solar and wind power, said David Sandalow, a former senior official with the U.S. State Department now at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

However, if it can be used without leaking, it has the potential to replace dirtier coal in the power sector.

"The climate implications of producing natural gas hydrates are complicated. There are potential benefits, but substantial risks," Sandalow said.

Commercial-scale production could be "transformative for northeast Asia, particularly for Japan, which imports nearly all its hydrocarbon needs," said James Taverner, a senior energy industry researcher at IHS Market, a London-based consulting firm.

The consensus within the industry is that commercial development won't happen until at least 2030. Smaller scale output could happen as early as 2020, said Tim Collett, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"The path to understanding when or if gas hydrates will be commercially produced will need many similar and more extended testing efforts," Collett said.

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13 comments

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PPihkala
4.3 / 5 (12) May 19, 2017
If handled properly, ie leaks are prevented, methane is less polluting than oil, but in the end it is fossil fuel, increasing CO2 pollution that we have too much already.
rrwillsj
2.5 / 5 (10) May 19, 2017
Taking big risks to access new sources of energy. Which in turn takes big investments. From that POV this is not about the flow of energy but rather the flow of money and feeding the hierarchy who skims off a piece of that liquidity.

There is an overabundance of energy available to all of us. However there is a complete lack of any compelling (i.e. greed) motivation to rationally invest in inventing and developing a spanking brand new method of storage and distribution of all that energy.

Unless we make an effort to rescue our biosphere? We Humans will prove that the dinosaurs were not the stupidest of species.
howhot3
2.6 / 5 (5) May 19, 2017
I agree with both commenters. In the end, it does increase CO2 pollution so not a great thing.
ab3a
3.7 / 5 (3) May 20, 2017
Two issues: If global temperatures increase, that methane hydrate could be released in to the atmosphere. Since methane is at least 15 times worse a GHG as carbon dioxide, we are better off if we can extract it and burn it before that happens.

Second, this methane is replacing coal. Other pollutants aside, burning coal releases several times the carbon dioxide than burning methane. Furthermore a natural gas turbine can spin up faster than a coal fired power plant. So natural gas can be a transition fuel to enable more renewable energy in the grid.

Those of you who sneer at the fact that it is still a fossil fuel are missing the larger picture. If you keep making good the victim of perfect, you won't get anything.
Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) May 20, 2017
@ab3a, first, messing with it will inevitably result in releasing some of it. So you have to add the methane that will be lost and emitted to the atmosphere to the equation. Studies suggest that the total methane emission must remain somewhere below 3.2% of the total usage for methane and other natural gas to be competitive with coal in terms of total global warming impact.

Second, the difference between burning methane and coal is more like 2.5:1 in terms of carbon released to the atmosphere per unit heat; the hydrogen doesn't release much energy.

Other than that, good points well made; overall if they can get this working without much leakage it's a net gain.

Except for the "sneering" part; you're characterizing, which isn't particularly helpful. My position is "all of the above." Every little bit counts. Given you're using characterizations like "sneering," though, I doubt such a nuanced position is comprehensible to you.
ab3a
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2017
@Da_Schneib: your carbon dioxide assessment on coal versus natural gas presumes a modern combined cycle plant. Most of the Chinese coal plants do not have that kind of technology. If they did, the severity of the smog that plagues their cities wouldn't be nearly as bad. Thus, the caloric content of the coal in that process requires burning more of it to get the same energy.

Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) May 21, 2017
@ab3a, not surprised you've got only one argument.

Do better.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) May 21, 2017
@ab3a, not surprised you've got only one argument.

Do better.

When it is intelligent, all you need is one, unlike the ignorant argumentS you Chicken Littles must fabricate.
Shootist
May 21, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
rrwillsj
3.7 / 5 (3) May 21, 2017
Opinionating as one of the six billion 'chicken little's' that are trying to scratch out a living on this singularly inhabitable world. None of those grasping for wealth by plundering and poisoning the Earth, have the slightest remorse for their worship of Mammon.

Conservation of resources, development of energy efficient technology and consumers learning to moderate their sense of entitlement for new toys.

Will necessitate decentralization of the criminal institutions that manipulate the Wall Street casinos into playing chicken with our future.
Dingbone
May 21, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Elmo_McGillicutty
not rated yet May 21, 2017
Burn all you can. It will green the planet up.
Da Schneib
not rated yet May 21, 2017
Well, at least one of the #climatecranks was reasonable for about half a post. We'll see if it was a fluke.

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