Unleashing the Methane Monster

Department of Energy

Methane hydrates trapped beneath the ice in Alaska and beneath the U.S. Gulf Coast could be a major energy source and could pose serious environmental consequences if extraction begins in earnest. According to the Department of Energy (DOE) there is more energy likely available from methane hydrates than all other fossil fuels. Methane hydrates are described as “3-D ice-lattice structures with natural gas locked inside, and are found both onshore and offshore—including under the Arctic permafrost and in ocean sediments along nearly every continental shelf in the world.” Warming or depressurizing the hydrates releases the natural gas.

While not all such gas is recoverable, an AP article detailing the possibility for buried methane as a future fuel source notes that the U.S. Geological Survey “estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable gas within methane hydrate deposits on Alaska’s North Slope” in 2008.

Drilling for methane has already begun in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, using existing drill rigs. At a cost of nearly $29 million, an experiment to recover usable methane gas produced 1 million cubic feet of methane. Now, the AP reports, “Researchers have begun the complex task of analyzing how the reservoir responded to extraction.”

Environmental groups are already voicing concern about the possible impacts of unleashing deeply stored methane, a global warming gas that has more than 20 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide although it does not linger in the atmosphere as long. They note that the Arctic is already under serious threat from climate change impacts, with permanent ice cover declining by 9% each decade, accelerating global warming overall as less snow and ice allow the earth to absorb more sunlight.

Creating a more robust drilling infrastructure in this sensitive region could have many unintended consequences, critics argue. It also directs further reliance and research dollars into fossil fuels as opposed to advancing cleaner, safer renewable energy alternatives. “Finding new ways to produce fossil fuels doesn’t change the fact that we can’t transfer to the atmosphere all the carbon in the fuels we already have without causing catastrophic climate disruption,” Dan Lashof, a climate analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told msnbc.com.

Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity noted the dangers inherent in methane extraction in the Arctic to the AP, saying: “Any exploration activities designed to extract methane hydrates run the risk of unintended consequences, of unleashing the monster.”

But the Obama administration has been vocal in its support of the technology. A press release from the DOE notes that future research will focus not only on Alaska but on locating and extracting methane hydrates in the U.S. Gulf Coast. “The Energy Department’s long term investments in shale gas research during the 70s and 80s helped pave the way for today’s boom in domestic natural gas production that is projected to cut the cost of natural gas by 30 percent by 2025 while creating thousands of American jobs,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “While this is just the beginning, this research could potentially yield significant new supplies of natural gas.”

In May 2012, the Energy Department announced that it was making $6.5 available for research projects directed at extracting natural gas from methane hydrates in 2012, and another $5 million to further gas hydrates research in 2013.