The good news today is that Japan--a 100% petroleum importer suffering from recent and past nuclear catastrophes--has proven the feasibility of recovering methane (an energy alternative to oil) from sediments below the ocean floor.
Methane is the simplest of hydrocarbons, a component of natural gas. High-pressure, low-temperature environments like seabeds and sub-permafrost can contain methane hydrates, also called clathrates, the frozen form of the gas. (See photo.) Some call methane hydrates "burning" or "flammable" ice because when ignited, they produce fire all on their own.
The discovery could offer an energy lifeline for the Pacific island nation, reducing its dependence on the Middle East, which has grown to supply almost 90% of Japan's oil, and on a perilously long network of secure sea lanes. Successful use of ocean-derived methane would allow Japan to preserve its status as one of the leading industrial powers and the world's third-largest economy.
The bad news: methane may be even more dangerous to the world climate than either fracked gas or heavy oil from the tar sands.
First offshore methane mining
Along with the US, China, Canada, and South Korea, Japan has investigated the logistics of methane extraction over the past decade. The Japanese have pursued ocean mining of methane hydrate gas in both the Pacific and the Sea of Japan.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as cited in The New York Times, the scientific drilling ship Chikyu started drilling in the Pacific Nankai Trough, 50 miles off Honshu, the country's largest and central island, in January. On Tuesday it began to extract methane there from hydrates about 1,000 feet below the seabed. Flaring from the ship has confirmed successful extraction. The trial will continue for two more weeks to confirm stable production and measure the amount of gas recovered.
Methane has an advantage over coal and oil in that it burns cleaner. However, it is a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Unprecedented climate hazards
Both the methane hydrates under potentially unstable Arctic sediments and those trapped within permafrost are subjects of grave environmental concern because of a feedback loop with the reported potential to initiate runaway global warming.
Like the undersea deposits, perrmafrost, the shallow, icy soil that covers nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, is one of earth's enormous carbon sinks. The Arctic permafrost has already begun to melt due to climate change and to free some of its previously trapped methane. American, Canadian, European, Russian, Chinese and other studies have confirmed recent permafrost degradation.
During the international climate meeting in Doha, Qatar, last November-December, scientists began to warn of enormous methane emissions likely with Arctic warming. Climate heating and drying caused by warming permafrost has the potential to turn the arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems into a major carbon dioxide disaster. A disaster in either the subsea methane hydrates or the permafrost has the potential to trigger the other, magnifying the potential for unstoppable climate change.
"Breakdown of gas hydrates due to short- or long-term climate change may release methane to the ocean-atmosphere system," say scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey Gas Hydrates Project as of mid-February. "Methane that reaches the atmosphere can in turn exacerbate climate warming.... [It] could have contributed to significant [i.e., environment-altering] warming during other periods of Earth's history."
Few of the climate change models, said the late Canadian blogger Richard Embleton, including those supporting the United Nations climate reports, have taken Arctic methane events into consideration in their global warming calculations.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers developments and environmental issues in conventional, solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. She detailed events and policy at last fall's 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar. Sandy has also reported on extreme weather disasters, including superstorm Sandy, winter storm Nemo, and the massive summer wildfires of the past decade. She has worked on offshore hydrocarbon reports since the 1980s.
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