David Frum

03.12.13

Is 'Fire Ice' the Next Fracking?

Video screenshot

Japan is attempting to commercialize the extraction of methane hydrate (frozen water and methane, for those of you who've forgotten high school chemistry) in order to boost its fuel production. Known as "fire ice," methane hydrate is located in fairly vast quantities on the ocean floor.

The problems? It's expensive and difficult to extract (until Tuesday, no one had managed the feat), and it's methane, a major warming gas. The Financial Times has more:

If it can scale up production from test wells safely and economically, Jogmec said commercial methane production could begin in 2016 or 2018. Previously, methane had been extracted from methane hydrate buried deep under Arctic permafrost, but not from ocean deposits, which are found mostly along continental shelves.

The substance is formed by a combination of high pressure and cold, and producing usable gas involves separating the methane from a “cage” of ice by sucking out seawater to lower the surrounding pressure. One cubic foot of solid methane hydrate releases about 164 cubic feet of gas.

One of the goals of the Japanese test, which will be conducted over two weeks using a specialised drilling ship, will be to measure the extent of the seabed that can be sufficiently depressurised to release collectable gas. The wider the area that can be exploited with each well, the more economically viable the technology will be.

But environmental experts have warned of potential hazards. Methane is a cleaner source of energy than oil or coal when burnt, but on its own it is an unusually powerful heat-trapping agent – perhaps 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I'm a big advocate of fracking, but I'll confess I haven't heard of methane hydrate since a geology class several years ago. Time to do some more research, I suppose.

[Video above courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey]