Plentiful Natural Gas, Get It While It's Cold

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Back in May Bruce Dorminey outlined the potential benefits of tapping methane hydrates—a “frozen combo of methane gas and water”—as a major, and frack-free, source of natural gas that could provide beaucoup energy without as much of the climate-changing collateral emissions of oil and coal. The hydrates are usually found in deep, cold water or in permafrost, the challenges of working there being a key reason hydrates have been a pretty much untapped bonanza.

Untapped, but not unknown. In 1982 the United States launched a program to study hydrates; a 1995 survey estimated the icy crystals contained more natural gas than all the conventional sources then known in the nation. A survey from 2008 suggested that if one third of the methane hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico’s sandy sediments alone were recoverable (and you may recall how these same crystals mucked up the effort to cap the Deepwater Horizon spill), that would double America’s natural gas resources.

Despite such potential, interest in methane hydrates has bounced from hot to cold, with the current glut of natural gas cooling ardor in most of the world outside energy-poor Japan. But buoyed by a successful field trial on Alaska’s North Slope completed with the Japanese, the U.S. Department of Energy is laying out $5.6 million for 14 research projects to better understand what to do and how to get at the hydrates. The projects range from looking for promising concentrations of the crystals to understanding how we can best get at them.

But alas, every rose, or in this case, clathrate, has its thorn. The biggest single grant DOE is offering, $1.2 million to the University of Texas at Austin, is to study under what climate change conditions the hydrates will dump their methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, directly into the ocean and not our clothes dryers. Something similar has been happening in the Arctic: As the tundra heats up it releases its frozen methane into the atmosphere, a process that has already gained lots of worried attention.

An angry Mother Nature, this suggests, might take the punch bowl away before the party even starts.