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By Robert Rapier on Oct 16, 2013 with 6 responses

The Ice That Burns

A Kindred Spirit

I have a very busy travel schedule this week, so this one is a little bit late and a bit rushed.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS). It was a funny sort of meeting, because I didn’t know he was coming, as he had come to visit someone else. When I was introduced to him we both said to each other “Hey, don’t I know you?”

We figured out that the reason we knew of each other is that we have both been advocates of using methanol as fuel. In fact, I referenced Dr. Luft and his frequent co-author Anne Korin in my book Power Plays. During his visit, he left a copy of their most recent book Petropoly: The Collapse of America’s Energy Security Paradigm.

I managed to get through the book during my recent travels (and I can highly recommend it), and our respective positions on energy issues are remarkably similar. I would say that on perhaps 90 percent of the energy issues he discussed we are in total agreement. There aren’t a lot of other people I can say that about.

A Few Disagreements

However, I can point out three differences in our respective positions. First, it seemed that climate change was really an afterthought in the book. The global warming potential of methane was mentioned, but I didn’t get the impression that the authors are as concerned as I am about the potential threat of a continued expansion of fossil fuel consumption.

Second, they dismissed the impact of higher prices on reducing oil demand. The example they used was Iran, which increased the price of gasoline by 75 percent in response to tight supplies arising from sanctions. They point out that this only reduced demand by 8 percent. But then later in the book they acknowledge that demand fell sharply in the US as oil prices spiked.

I think the issue is whether there is a lot of discretionary consumption, which is a point I have stressed in the past. In developing countries where oil is used at a much lower level and for more essential functions, demand is indeed pretty inelastic. In developed countries, it is a lot easier to curb some discretionary consumption, which is what we have done. Thus, the trend over the past few years has been that as oil prices increased, demand fell in developed countries but continued to increase in developing countries.

Methane Hydrates: The Ice That Burns

The third disagreement is the topic of this column: Methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are compounds in which methane (natural gas) forms an ice-like crystalline compound with water. Methane hydrates are flammable in the crystalline form, and methane can be extracted from them and burned. The methane hydrate resource is immense—much larger than the conventional resource base for natural gas. But the deposits occur primarily on and under the ocean floor, and to a lesser extent in the Arctic permafrost, and there is presently no way to economically extract them.

Nevertheless, countries are working to commercialize the extraction of methane hydrates. Japan and China are both engaged in long-term commercialization efforts, and the United States is conducting research into the potential of methane hydrates.

But here is my potential disagreement with Dr. Luft. In Petropoly, he makes the argument that the potential for methane hydrates is so huge that it may render shale gas a historical footnote. He is correct about that; the potential resource is enormous. The US Department of Energy estimated that methane hydrates may contain 50-500 times as much gas as the current US natural gas resource base. In terms of global gas reserves, the total global reserve in 2012 was estimated to be 6.6 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. The methane hydrate resource (all of the estimated gas in place, whereas “reserves” refer to gas that is economical to produce) is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 quadrillion cubic feet.

Burning Up the Environment

While this is certainly enough gas to potentially render shale gas a historical footnote, the environmental backlash that would result from widespread commercialization of methane hydrates could also render the shale gas protests a historical footnote. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide, and development of the hydrates would both increase the amount of methane in the atmosphere — because some would surely leak to the air during collecting and processing — and increase the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration as the methane is burned for power.

Thus, from my perspective there is tremendous environmental risk from commercial development of methane hydrates. This is a risk I stress any time someone asks me about methane hydrates, but a risk that Petropoly failed to note. In fairness, I called it a “potential disagreement” because the authors may be well aware of these risks but simply failed to mention them in their short blurb on the hydrates. But if they didn’t mention it because they believe there isn’t significant environmental risks from methane hydrate development, then we have a definite disagreement on that point.

Conclusion: Tread Cautiously

I think economic viability is a long shot in any case, but my advice would be to tread very cautiously on the methane hydrates. I think there is a lot of lower hanging fruit that comes with much less environmental risk.

Link to Original Article: The Ice That Burns

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Edward Kerr on October 17, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Great report Robert,
    Methane, blessing or curse, is the “wild card” in the game of planetary warming. I hope that your admonition to “tread very cautiously” is heeded though I know that it probably won’t be.

    Best regards,

  2. By Forrest on October 17, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Japan just accomplished a successful mining operation. U.S. accomplished the same off Alaskan arctic waters. These tests prove viability of technology, but economics and energy competition will slow down progress of this energy sector. Shale gas much cheaper than hazardous offshore mining of methane hydrates. Also, internationally more natural gas will be discovered per modern drilling capability. Japan has to import LNG and has the most to gain from methane hydrate mining. Energy companies will go slow as the piping and other infrastructure a big expense. Cost effective process and equipment yet to be refined and the market is not cost effective. But like cellulosic ethanol, much to gain upon future and to much to gain to shy away. Per global warming concerns…I would feel better upon harvesting methane out of planet and eco-sytem than let it leak out or suddenly flash out per some meteor hit. Per global CO2 concerns we should minimize sources of aerobic bacterial activity such as old growth forest, compost piles, rotting vegetation, municipal waste treatment. Better to force carbon vegetation and waste to bio-digestors and generate bio-gas/natural gas. Better to harvest vegetation before natural decomposition and utilize for ethanol, heat, or food.

  3. By James Van Damme on October 17, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Does anyone know how much methane leaks out of the ocean naturally? It would seem to be beneficial to burn this stuff up, as the CO2 would be much less harmful than CH4.

  4. By Benjamin Cole on October 18, 2013 at 12:00 am

    “I would say that on perhaps 90 percent of the energy issues he discussed we are in total agreement. There aren’t a lot of other people I can say that about.”-RR

    Well, I think I agree with RR nearly all the time, so maybe I am another RR dittohead, to steal a term from Rush Limbaugh land.

    About the only time I disagree with RR is on the effectiveness of the price signal. I think ultimately the price signal solves energy “problems,” if enough of the economies of the world are roughly free-market oriented. But this is hardly a disagreement, it probably comes down to a perspective that shifts with time.

    I share with RR an uneasy feeling however: Even if the price signal works for supply and demand, it never works for pollution, and that includes CO2 or other emissions said to increase temperatures. If climate warming is manmade, then we may have a problem…or we may be fencing off the next Ice Age…

    • By Forrest on October 18, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Your point of climate warming may be a curse or blessing, interesting. Also, pollution market place did work per the trading of credits in GW’s EPA era. Tax what you want less of works the marketplace artificially.

      Listening to NPR show, a environmentalist interview regarding restrictions of Keystone pipeline. After disclosing all technical and environmental concerns were addressed…they changed strategy to “we just don’t want it” as in they desire to kill any development of fossil fuel period. Meaning carbon fuels are evil even if you solve environment problems. They knew of what RR posted on lower emissions and less spills per pipeline. Also, the insignificance upon global scale, just they deem it evil and will fight all fossil and nuclear energy. They dream of utopian solutions of solar and wind energy and greatly reduced standard of living needs. They are in search of a problem to present their solution.

      Interesting facts- global fossil fuel produces 32 Gt/year CO2. Plant life carbon cycle about 50-60 Gt/year or twice as much. Of the fossil fuel CO2, Coal is responsible for 45%, oil 35%, and NG 20%. Note U.S. coal plants under going adaption of smokestack controls reducing CO2 by 40%. Many such technologies (man made) are being developed, recent example bio-char. Reference BBC story “The Secret of El Dorado” and Terra Preta. You see, natures carbon sequestration system is very anemic, such as mature forest doing nothing. If instead of allowing plant matter to decompose, utilize per biofuel pyrolysis system. Capture a 50% CO2 improvement within the generated charcoal. The “bio char” will greatly improve soil fertility and stay active of centuries. This is revolutionary step forward and calculates out to potentially address all fossil fuel CO2 emissions in future. So, we get bio-fuel per the hydrogen and CO of the pyrolysis of forestry and agricultural waste. We get a top soil improver minimizing water and fertilizer needs, and we get a solution to CO2 sequestration. This makes me think of RR ICE methanol exhaust recuperator for H2 fuel. Same could be done with bio pellet fuel. Pyrolysis a few pounds for H2 and charcoal generation. A micro pellet stove utilizing exhaust heat for processing a non polluting engine fuel. On top of that generate your extremely environmental friendly yard soil improver.

    • By Forrest on October 20, 2013 at 8:44 am

      Simplified data -

      Atmosphere contains 800 Gt of Carbon or roughly .03%
      Net terrestrial uptake of CO2 1 Gt / year
      Net ocean uptake of CO2 2 Gt / year
      Fossil fuel energy emit 6 Gt / year
      Net increase 3 Gt / year without biochar

      Biochar alone capable of 2.2 Gt / year uptake of CO2 by 2050

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