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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 in 2009.

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?