Thursday, December 27, 2007

Flammable Ice

Japan has joined Canada and the United States in test drilling for methane in the Pacific Ocean. If successful, the gas drilling project could help Japan reduce its 23.3 billion natural gas import bill. Commercial production of methane becomes economically viable when the price of oil hits $54 dollars a barrel. Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water, lie buried some 3,000 feet below the ocean.

Scientists believe that the world’s climate was catastrophically changed when volcanoes melted natural gas (methane hydrate) frozen in the seabed. This massive release of methane is believed to be the contributing factor that led to the extinction of the dinasaurs.

What are the risks? Ryo Matsumoto, a University of Tokyo scientist tells us that drilling for methane in the ocean could disturb the seabed and trigger an uncontrolled release of methane. Drilling could also cause massive underwater landslides. Scientists have theorized that underwater landslides triggered by volcanoes 50 million years ago may have resulted in a massive release of methane contributing to a global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years.

Japanese engineers have found enough “flammable ice” to meet Japan’s gas demand for the next 14 years. The frozen methane is located in the Nankai Trough, 30 miles off the cost of the main island, Honshu. The trick is to extract it without harming the environment. Jogmec, the Japanese state controlled Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation is studying test production in Canada’s permafrost region to determine how methane can be tapped for mass production. To date, the most efficient method is “depressurizing” which requires deep bore holes to be drilled down into the ice sheets. Pressure within the bore is reduced by a pump that separates methane from water. Conventional drilling techniques will not be used for methane exploitation. The two governments have completed the first round of tests, but will not release results, due in part to a confidentiality agreement signed by both nations.

But a bigger worry may be the 2006 discovery that methane gas bubbles are already rising from the ocean floor in the Sea of Japan, which indicates that the underwater ice may already be melting. The natural release of methane can also contribute significantly to global warming.

Additional information about "flammable ice" can be found at the sites listed below:

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