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Japan plans to harvest hydrates

  • Mike Doran
    Jan 19, 2008 Expand Messages
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      A bigger worry is evidence that the undersea ice may already be
      melting. In September, Matsumoto joined a research party in the Sea of
      Japan to follow up on a 2006 discovery by his university colleagues of
      methane gas bubbles rising from the ocean floor.

      Japan Mines `Flammable Ice,' Flirts With Environmental Disaster
      By Shigeru Sato

      Dec. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Fifty-five million years ago the world's
      climate was catastrophically changed when volcanoes melted natural gas
      frozen in the seabed. Now Japan plans to drill for the same icy
      crystals to end its reliance on imported energy.

      Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced
      water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean
      floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and
      Indonesia. Japanese engineers have found enough ``flammable ice'' to
      meet its gas use demands for 14 years. The trick is extracting it
      without damaging the environment.

      Japan is joining the U.S. and Canada in test drilling for methane even
      as scientists express concerns about any uncontrolled release of the
      frozen chemical. Some researchers blame the greenhouse gas for
      triggering a global firestorm that helped wipe out the dinosaurs.

      ``Methane hydrate was a key cause of the global warming that led to
      one of the largest extinctions in the earth's history,'' says Ryo
      Matsumoto, a University of Tokyo scientist who has studied frozen gas
      since 1987. ``By making the best use of our wisdom, knowledge and
      technology, we should be able to utilize this wisely as a new

      If successful, the gas drilling project could help Japan reduce a
      liquefied natural gas import bill that last year was 2.66 trillion yen
      ($23.3 billion). The country's LNG imports totaled 62.2 million metric
      tons, equivalent to 3.03 trillion cubic feet, according to the
      Ministry of Finance's trade report.

      ``We are closely watching the government's methane hydrate project,
      expecting some day to start receiving gas via pipelines from the
      continental shelf,'' says Toshiharu Okui, deputy general manager of
      gas resources at Tokyo Gas Co., the country's largest distributor of
      natural gas.

      500 Meters Thick

      Trapped within sheets of ice up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) thick is an
      estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of crystalline methane encased in an
      ocean trench called the Nankai Trough, 30 miles (50 kilometers) off
      the coast of the main Honshu Island.

      ``Reserves aren't as much as Saudi Arabia's or Russia's, but they will
      contribute to us cutting our heavy dependence on imports,'' says
      Yoshifumi Hashiba, deputy director of the trade ministry's petroleum
      and natural gas division.

      Exploiting the Nankai Trough depends on developing technical know-how
      through a test project in Canada's frozen north, says Kenichi Yokoi,
      team leader of the methane hydrate research project at
      state-controlled Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., known as

      ``Test production in Canada's permafrost is the key to provide clues
      and determine how methane hydrate can be tapped for mass production,''
      says Yokoi. ``Conventional drilling technologies won't be applied for
      methane hydrate exploitation.''

      Test Drilling Results

      The most efficient method has proved ``depressurizing,'' which
      requires deep bore holes being drilled into the ice sheets. Pressure
      within the chamber is reduced by a pump, causing gaseous methane to
      separate from the water and ascend to the well head.

      A first round of drilling was completed in April by Jogmec and the
      Canadian government and a second set of tests are scheduled for early
      2008. The two governments won't disclose results due to a
      confidentiality agreement, Jogmec's Yokoi says.

      Commercial exploitation of methane hydrate is economically viable when
      oil trades above $54 a barrel, Japan's government estimated two years
      ago. The trade ministry is targeting 2016 to start production,
      corresponding with the scheduled completion of the 16-year
      government-led test project.

      While governments are attracted to an abundant clean fuel, drilling
      risks disturbing the seabed and triggering an uncontrolled release,
      says Matsumoto of the University of Tokyo.

      ``A mass release of methane into the sea and the atmosphere is a risk
      for global warming,'' he says. ``Massive landslides at the ocean floor
      must be avoided when drilling at the Nankai Trough.''

      Undersea Landslides

      Undersea landsides triggered by volcanoes that occurred more than
      fifty million years ago resulted in the release of methane hydrate,
      contributing to global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years,
      says Matsumoto.

      Japan's government is promising rigorous environmental controls with
      gas-leakage detectors and monitoring systems in place before the
      scheduled test drilling in as early as 2009.

      ``Energy security and environment protection cannot be apart from each
      other,'' says the trade ministry's Hashiba. ``We need a comprehensive

      Among other concerns are that the separation of sea water and colder
      fresh water will cause ocean temperatures in the Nankai Trough to
      fall, says Hashiba. The area is a habitat for red sea bream, a fish

      Fishing Bank Threat

      ``We're worried that drilling work might harm our fishing banks out
      there and eventually reduce our catches of red sea bream,'' says
      Hironori Watanabe at the Katsuura City fishery association.

      A bigger worry is evidence that the undersea ice may already be
      melting. In September, Matsumoto joined a research party in the Sea of
      Japan to follow up on a 2006 discovery by his university colleagues of
      methane gas bubbles rising from the ocean floor.

      ``It's ironically recurring,'' Matsumoto says. ``Extinction of living
      organisms has repeatedly taken place in the earth's history, and dead
      bodies were accumulated in soil and under the sea bed, and turned to
      oil and natural gas.''

      To contact the reporters on this story: Shigeru Sato in Tokyo at
      ssato10@... ;
      Last Updated: December 25, 2007 11:13 EST