Quest For “Flammable
Ice” Could Lead To Global Disaster
By James Donahue
The rush to find alternative
energy has sparked an interest by business interests in the U.S., Canada and Japan to tap into massive pockets of frozen methane hydrate
known to lie deep under the ocean floor.
Japanese engineers say
they found enough to meet that nation’s gas demands for years. Test drilling for methane is planned. But scientists
are expressing concerns about the drilling, saying a mistake that causes an uncontrolled release of methane could spell disaster.
They say that it may have been just this kind of unexpected release of methane that sparked a global firestorm that caused
the last great extinction and helped wipe out the dinosaurs.
The theory is that volcanism
melted natural gas frozen in the seabed some 55 million years ago, causing a massive burning that triggered a radical climate
change. Consider the effects of massive blocks of burning methane ice and the smoke and soot-filled skies from volcanic action
on all living creatures at that time. Geologists say it was one of the largest extinctions in the history of the planet.
The Japanese scientists
understand the risks, but they also believe that contemporary wisdom and technology will make it possible for them to successfully
drill into these fields of frozen gas and turn it into a new source of fuel.
The project is expected
to help Japan reduce a liquefied natural
gas import bill that last year was $23.3 billion. It is estimated that the methane ice layers are up to 500 meters, or 1,640
feet thick at the bottom of an ocean trench known as the Nankai Trough, located 30 miles off the coast of Honshu Island.
In two areas off North
and South Carolina, under the Atlantic, there is yet another
known block of frozen methane hydrate, as well as just plain methane gas. It is estimated that up to 1,300 trillion cubic
feet of this gas may be available here alone.
Methane Hydrate is a
frozen water and methane mix that looks like ice, but is highly flammable. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful
than CO2, it is considered much cleaner when it is burned.
The Japanese are closely
watching a test drilling operation by Canadians into the permafrost, in a similar venture, before deciding how to attempt
to tap the methane hydrate of their coast for mass production. Kenichi Yokoi, of the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp.,
noted that conventional drilling technologies cannot be applied to such a project.
One effective method
is “depressurizing,” which involves deep bore holes drilled into the ice sheets. Then pressure within the chamber
is reduced by a pump, causing gaseous methane to separate from the water and rise to the well head.
The exploration crews
are well aware of the high risks they are taking. The concern is that as the gas is extracted there might be massive mudslides
on the ocean floor, causing a sudden release of the methane. As the gas bubbles to the surface of the ocean, all it would
take is a spark from drilling equipment or a ship’s engine to trigger a disastrous explosion and fire.
The Japanese government
promises rigorous environmental controls with gas detectors and other monitoring systems in place before test drilling begins
Our concern is that human error is always possible in projects of
this scale. One slip could lead to an irreversible explosive disaster of such magnitude that its impact on all life on the
planet could be wiped out.
Is the energy need so great that we are willing to take such a chance?