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[cdn-nucl-l] "end of the energy crisis as we know it"
Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 01:40 GMT
Fossil fuel revolution begins
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington
The first step in a new era of global energy production is being taken, with
a Japanese attempt to recover vast reserves of frozen methane gas from under
the ocean floor.
The drilling project began on Friday and is the first commercial offshore
attempt but it is fraught with danger. Accidental releases of vast volumes
of the buried gas have in the past led to the destruction of oil platforms
in the Caspian Sea.
These releases are also believed to be the phenomenon behind the Bermuda
Triangle mysteries of missing ships.
"It's horrifically dangerous," said Professor Richard Selley, a gas hydrate
expert at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, London. "If they
drill in with a conventional drill ship and they hit the stuff and
destabilise it, all the gas comes bubbling up and the ship will sink.
"The Japanese are the brave souls who are drilling this first commercial
test offshore," added Professor Selley. "It may be very easy to avoid the
risk of a catastrophic blowout but this is the first to test it."
On stream in two years
Tatsuya Sameshima, the project's director at the Japan National Oil Company,
told BBC News Online that commercial production was not imminent: "It is
expected that 10 more years will be required for more research effort on
But Professor Selley believes the results of this well will set a likely
timescale for the methane coming on stream, and "if the technology works,
then they could be producing it commercially very quickly, within 18 months
or two years."
The methane is the legacy of ancient sea-floor bacteria, which fed on plant
and animal remains and produced methane. As the sediments subsided, the
pressure increased and the methane and water froze to form the gas hydrates.
The cause of the danger is that much of the gas hydrate in the world is
close to melting and even a small disturbance can release huge volumes of
the gas. When the ice melts, it belches out 160 times its volume in gas.
"The trouble is that you can't run," said Professor Selley, noting that one
underwater landslide in the Bermuda triangle can set off "huge
Three kilometres down
The drilling attempt, lead by the Japan National Oil Company, is being made
from a semi-submersible oil rig. This is stationed 60 kilometres off Japan's
Omae Zaki peninsula over the Nankai Trough.
The water depth in the area is 950 metres but the engineers are aiming the
reach a total depth of 2,850 m. The gas hydrates are believed to begin 350 m
below the sea floor, based on the analysis of the reflections of sound
The whole research programme which culminates in this well is believed to
have cost over $60m.
Ice that burns
The reason that oil companies are so interested in gas hydrates is the
colossal global reserves which are estimated to be 80,000 times greater than
those for conventional natural gas.
<<...>> Earth's gas reserves
<<...>> Methane: 11.3 million trillion cubic metres
<<...>> Conventional gas: 144 trillion cubic metres
These figures imply the "end of the energy crisis as we know it", said
"This year or next year, depending on who you believe, we are at maximum
production of conventional petroleum - we are no longer finding oil and gas
at the rate at which it is being used up," he said.
The US reserves alone are estimated at 5.7 trillion cubic metres (200
trillion cubic feet) of methane - enough to meet that energy-hungry
country's needs for 2,000 years at current rates of use.
Japan has led the way because it has very little oil and gas resources of
But the prospect of a huge, and cheap, source of fossil fuels will alarm
those who advocate cutting carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.
"If you believe that global warming is happening and that it is due to
burning fossil fuels, then you would be concerned at gas hydrates being
burned as an energy source, because they will continue that effect," said
"But if you have to burn fossil fuels, then methane is the cleanest - you
don't get the particulates, sulphur compounds or nasty metals that you get
As well as Japan, a number of other countries have research programs in gas
hydrates, including the US, Canada, India, Korea and Norway. In the US
earlier this year, the House of Representatives science committee passed a
bill that would provide $42m over five years for research.
Stirring it up
The key to successful exploitation of gas hydrates, which would change the
entire structure of the global energy industry, is the technology.
Syntroleum, a US company based in Oklahoma, has just received a patent for a
gas hydrate recovery system. It envisages drilling from a ship which
'hovers' over the drill site, carefully uncorks the reservoir and then pipes
the gas aboard. Here, any water is siphoned off and the gas is then
compacted into a liquid for easier storage.
Amongst the elements included in the hydrate collection device at the bottom
of the well are heating elements and electrodes to melt the hydrate and an
agitator to stir them.
One safer approach which has been suggested is to drill into the gas hydrate
from the side. It is now possible to drill horizontally for several
kilometres, meaning that the ship or rig is not directly over the danger