The state of Alaska is looking for partners to research a new source of natural gas called methane hydrates.
It could bring in new revenue for the state far down the road, but some environmentalists worry the risk of releasing that much methane is too great.
Methane hydrates are methane gas that’s trapped in ice crystals in the subsurface of the ocean floor and in the permafrost. Tests by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 in Alaska showed that the resource existed on the North Slope, but no one has commercially extracted methane hydrates anywhere in the world.
The state’s Director for the Division of Oil and Gas, Bill Barron, says the state and the federal Department of Energy are working together to research the potential in Alaska.
“But that’s why we’re doing these tests. This is very new technology. You can heat it and melt the water and that will liberate the methane,” Barron said. “There is a way to use carbon dioxide to exchange the carbon dioxide for the methane within the ice and liberate the methane and use it for CO2 sequestration.”
Barron says producers can use many of the same types of drills and well casings used in standard oil and gas drilling. But because methane hydrates are stored in the earth in a different way from typical natural gas, they need to research ways to release it safely and without melting the permafrost.
“You’re trying to strike that balance between how much recovery you get with what the impact is,” Barron said. “Right now we don’t think the impact will be at all substantial. We think that just a few degrees may be enough to liberate the methane.”
Meaning that the permafrost column will stay intact. Barron says this theory is based on research and on evidence from wells that have already struck and recovered some methane hydrates.
But Richard Charter says producing methane hydrates could be very risky. Charter is a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and has been on the Department of Energy’s methane hydrate advisory committee for 10 years. He says the main risk is a giant blow out that could release significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
“Are we going to trigger a release that we can’t control of natural gas, particularly in the ocean, that we can’t shut off at a time when global warming is a problem and then further accelerate global warming?” Charter said.
Charter says drilling onshore is safer than offshore, where the risk is triggering a subsea landslide along with a release of methane. But either way, he says it’s different from conventional gas drilling because melting the hydrates leads to geological instability. He says the development of methane hydrates is at the point where researchers and industry players have to get it right.
“With hydrates we’re about where Thomas Edison was when he had his early light bulbs, some of his early light bulbs blew up,” Charter said. “So when you’re in the experimental phase of something with as large a scale of potential risk as hydrate exploitation certainly appears to have, you want to be extra careful because when you are learning is when you can have very large accidents.”
State and federal energy experts will be meeting with industry representatives in Denver on December 11 to see who wants to partner with the government to conduct the research and development work.
Charter says industry interest is based on methane’s potential for being the next big energy resource.
“If you could get a sufficient quantity of it to make it economically exportable, and by export I mean Asia as a market, then all of the sudden it’s a game changer for Alaska,” Charter said.
Methane extracted from hydrates can be transported along with natural gas from conventional sources either in a gas line or as LNG on a tanker.
Japan is the furthest along with methane hydrate research. The country drilled and extracted the resource from an offshore well in March.