Tag Archives: GHG

Meet the Future – Methane Hydrate

17 Mar

Flame over methane hydrate and its clathrate crystal structure.
(Source: United States Geological Survey)

If you’ve been involved in the energy sector for as long as me, you’ve undoubtedly heard endless speculation and debate over the direction of our energy future. Specifically, what energy source is capable of succeeding coal, oil, and natural gas? Most often, this discussion is framed as,”How will we displace our use of carbon-based supplies?”

But, have you ever stopped to think about what the energy future would look like if, rather than barreling off the downslope of Hubert’s Peak, we discovered how to commercially tap a vast new source of the cleanest of hydrocarbons–methane? And, what if that new supply of natural gas had nothing to do with hydrofracturing? Then what?

That’s the question more people may soon be asking if ongoing research results in more reports, such as the one this week from Japan. Methane hydrate, which can be found just under the earth’s surface throughout much of the world, is that exciting new energy source.

Methane hydrate is a naturally occurring chemical compound in which molecules of methane (natural gas) are embedded within ice, forming “clathrate.” A precise combination of temperature and pressure must exist for the unstable hydrate to form. As a result, it is extremely difficult to capture the methane before the hydrate dissociates into water and natural gas.

Although the compound is sensitive to temperature and pressure conditions, methane hydrate has been found throughout the world both on land, particularly in the arctic, and beneath the sea. Areas where the continental shelves transition to the deep ocean appear to provide favorable conditions for methane hydrate formation.

Scientists and engineers worldwide are diligently working to provide us with the keys to unlocking this new source of natural gas. In fact, over a decade ago, the U.S. government passed into law the “Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000.”

The Department of Energy (“DOE”) leads the R&D programs and coordinates an alphabet soup of federal agencies and departments including, the BLM, BOEMRE, NOAA, NRL, NSF, and USGS researching methane hydrate. DOE is tasked with expanding our understanding of methane hydrate so that ultimately it may be developed as a viable energy resource.

Other countries including Canada, China, Japan, Norway, and South Korea as well as academic institutions and private companies, including such energy giants as BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, have hydrate research projects underway. Following Fukushima, Japan with relatively few domestic energy resources, is especially keen to discover how to harvest methane hydrate.

As with most any fundamental research, from an outsider’s perspective, progress appears to move at glacial speed. However, such broad-based interest and allocation of resources doesn’t materialize unless there is significant potential for a major breakthrough in technology. When the understanding of methane hydrate progresses to the commercial development stage, it will usher in an energy revolution greater than the current “fracking revolution.”

Consider the potential impact of methane hydrate as an energy source. The U.S. MMS (now part of the BOEMRE) estimated that there is somewhere between 11,000 and 34,000 trillion cubic feet (“Tcf”) of methane hydrate under the continental shelf in the northern Gulf of Mexico. About 6,700 Tcf of that may be commercially viable to extract. (from DOE/NETL publication, “Energy Resource Potential of Methane Hydrate”)  According to the Potential Gas Committee, the total U.S. natural gas resource base, not counting methane hydrate, is slightly over 2,000 Tcf…enough to meet our needs for the remainder of this century.

Assuming a typical recovery rate of about thirty percent of that 6,700 Tcf quantity, the U.S. could double its total natural gas resource base with methane hydrate from the Gulf of Mexico alone. In other words, the U.S. would have enough natural gas to satisfy demand at existing levels during this century and most of the next.

Clearly, we are a long way from being able to commercially produce substantial quantities of natural gas from methane hydrate. There is much we don’t know about the compound and technical challenges to safely and responsibly produce it are considerable. But, as the news from Japan indicates, progress continues to be made.

To some, such as 350.org, the prospect of massive new supplies of natural gas is the death knell for reducing man-made global CO2 emissions. Nothing is more frightening. But, I tend to believe just the opposite. It may be the world’s best prospect for reducing global CO2 levels.

Scientists tell us that reducing CO2 emissions in the developed countries isn’t the key to lowering GHG levels worldwide. The focus must be on developing countries. Absent economically viable alternatives to coal and petroleum fuels, these countries will follow the historic path of the developed nations by using the cheapest, most readily available energy sources. There must be suitable substitutes for coal and petroleum.

Wind and solar are intermittent and exorbitantly expensive in the context of developing markets, therefore cannot be deemed viable substitutes. Nuclear is a good base load energy source, but initial capital expenses for its development price it out of the reach of most developing nations.

Like it or not, natural gas is the only abundant, reasonably priced alternative that can compete with cheap coal. By emitting less than half of the CO2 of conventional coal, developing regions using more natural gas results in a viable way forward for those concerned about climate change.

We are not yet capable of tapping the potential of methane hydrate, but just as the decades long scientific and technological research that brought about hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the basic research on this exciting new frontier presses ahead. Glimpses of the energy future appear to reveal even more natural gas.

Mr. President…Congratulations! You’ll need more energy this term.

10 Nov


Congratulations Mr. President. You pulled off an incredible election win, defying the pundits and earning another four years in the White House.

Let’s face it though, your election win is historic because it was the most money ever spent to maintain the status quo. The operation of the Constitution through the Electoral College gives the appearance of an impressive victory, but the popular vote belies that result. You weren’t handed a mandate and you face virtually the same hopelessly deadlocked Congress. Wall Street isn’t exuberant either.

Nevertheless, savor the moment. But, you’ll need to keep the victory lap short.

Clearly, your most pressing agenda item is the dreaded “fiscal cliff.” You’ll likely be spending a good deal of time ensuring that our financial problems don’t morph into another Greek-style economic crisis. Along the way, you’ll probably attempt to implement some spending cuts and tax reforms, tweak Obama care, face down the Iranians, strike a few more al-Qaeda, and keep China and Russia in check . If you stop to think about it, the global financial collapsed you faced on your first day on the job back in January 2009, looks like just another day at the office.

So where can you boost the energy level, build a few bi-partisan bridges, and increase the prospects for a successful encore term? Try energy. No, not one of those caffeinated drinks so popular with the millennials. (By the way, don’t let Sasha or Malia get a taste for those.) Real energy.

OK, energy wasn’t your strong suit during the first term. You promised to stop the rise in sea level, create a green economy,  implement Cap and Trade, support carbon-free technologies, promote clean coal, unleash the hounds of enforcement at EPA, and promote zero emission electric vehicles.

What you ended up with was spending a few billion dollars on Solyndra, EnerOne, Tesla Motors, et. al., a green job drain to countries such as China and Sweden, Cap and Trade buried by the economy and Congress, threats to bankrupt new coal-fired power plants, about 10,000 Chevy Volts sold, the BP blowout, and a few million homeless residents living without power on the New Jersey and New York shoreline. But that one doesn’t count because it was caused by an errant hurricane, not an anthropogenic rise in sea level.

Yet, believe it or not, energy could be a bright spot this time around. Take advantage of what’s happening in the sector and reach across the isle. I’ll bet that you’ll find more than a few hands extended to you. While you don’t have the budget or political clout to inaugurate grand programs, you can achieve some near-term wins and lay the foundation for realistic future advances. Besides, working families and businesses will thank you for keeping their utility bills and gasoline budget in check.

What’s behind this vision? For starters, domestic oil and gas production has rebounded as a result of hydraulic fracturing. There is a real prospect to import less foreign oil as a result. Jobs of all kind are being created to support the boom in domestic production. The new supplies have driven down the price for natural gas spurring private sector investment in more affordable alternatives to diesel and gasoline. Finally, because it’s displacing coal in power generation, cleaner burning natural gas is reducing the country’s Green House Gas (“GHG”) emissions despite the defeat of Cap and Trade.

So, what should the second Obama Administration do to capitalize on this situation? The fiscal cliff, stubbornly high unemployment, and anemic GDP are casting dark clouds over every aspect of this term. Energy is no exception. Just remember three simple words: Plentiful, Affordable, Reliable.

Start by recognizing that now is not the time to press Congress for climate change programs, a new carbon tax, Cap and Trade, or spending on green washed programs of any type. You need not abandon your long-term desire heal the planet, but the first order of business is to heal the economy. Besides, you have breathing room on GHG emissions since they are currently headed in the right direction, even though it’s for all the wrong reasons. Don’t ever forget that working families and businesses are paying for those GHG reductions with job losses and budget cuts.

Continue exploiting natural gas. It’s creating more jobs than any other business sector, bringing down the cost of heat and light, providing a sustainable competitive advantage to domestic chemical and fertilizer producers, driving private sector investment as an alternative vehicle fuel, and is the most effective means of implementing real progress on reducing CO2 emissions today.

Develop domestic oil. Just as with natural gas, hydraulic fracturing in oil production could yield massive changes in how we meet our demand for oil. Other technological advances promise to unleash vast quantities of shale oil that some estimates place at nearly 5 times greater than the reserves of Saudi Arabia. Don’t deny the country the benefits of access to our domestic resources by limiting exploration and production to private lands.  Pursuing your “all of the above” strategy should include “all that’s below.”

Stop unnecessary regulatory initiatives that create duplicative, burdensome barriers to growth. To be sure, government regulations are needed to protect public health, safety, and the environment. With the advances in extractive technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and shale oil recovery, regulations must evolve to be effective. Since many oil and gas industry accidents are low probability, high impact events, the industry is subject to the most comprehensive regulation and oversight imaginable. These are oftentimes administered at both the federal and state level. That’s why intelligent regulation, not simply more red tape should be the rule.

Obviously, these changes in our energy supply picture will provide significant national security advantages at a time when the global neighborhood isn’t becoming a friendlier place for the US. But energy independence is a political statement not a policy. Look, instead, to increasing our energy stability and security. Take a North American rather than a parochial US view of our national energy security.

Canadian oil is as secure as our own production and we should do our best to ensure that our neighbor prefers doing business with us. Likewise, a North American view recognizes that the Eagle Ford shale formation in Texas doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande river. Similarly, Mexico shares the Gulf with us and they have yet to adequately develop their offshore resources. Rather than looking for ways to build a bigger fence, we should be working with Mexico to build their energy industry. If oil and gas production can create jobs and support the economies of the US, Canada, and Mexico, a fence may become superfluous.

Finally, promote the energy initiative that yields the biggest return on investment of any energy source or program – efficiency. Intelligent conservation and efficiency measures such as home insulation, white roofs, or efficient light bulbs aren’t exciting or attention grabbing, but yield immediate and sustainable results today. Besides, you can’t argue with the saying, “a gallon saved is a gallon not imported.”

The good news, Mr. President, is that you still have some very good energy options to pursue. Even in the face of our severe fiscal and economic challenges, energy can make inroads to economic recovery and national security. Take advantage of the plentiful, affordable, reliable energy supplies available today, champion intelligent regulation, and promote energy efficiency. While these may not be seen as significant legacy initiatives, sometimes leadership demands a steady hand and a workmanlike focus on the fundamentals. That’s exactly what this nation’s working families and businesses could use right now.