23 December 2010

Two from Richard Embleton on methane hydrates

  From the awesome http://oilbeseeingyou.blogspot.com

Methane Hydrate Risk in our Pursuit of Energy

Everyone knows business men are trustworthy. Hell, survey after survey shows that they are more trusted than the family doctor or your local banker or pharmacist or those bleeding-heart scientists writing global warming reports for the IPCC or, God forbid, that wacko environmentalist living down the street who keeps showing up at all those Greenpeace demonstrations. So, of course we can count on business men, these pillars of society, to protect the environment and do the right thing and make decisions in the best interest of "the little people", as Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, so eloquently put it.

And we can trust corporations, like BP, Exxon, Halliburton, Enron and Lehman Brothers, to monitor and police their own operations. If they find something wrong they will make sure it gets fixed, and quickly. So there is no need for us or our governments to hold them accountable. They will hold themselves accountable. After all, isn't BP voluntarily setting aside $20-billion to cover costs and claims resulting from the Gulf oil spill? And don't they have thousands of people on the beaches and on shrimp boats cleaning up the oil spill? Oh wait, they were strong-armed into all of that by President Obama. Well they would have done it anyway, right?

The reality is, in my opinion, that the inordinate faith and trust afforded business and industry leaders and executives is both misplaced and highly irrational in face of the evidence of the collateral damage of their profit-centred decisions and actions over the last several decades. The reality is that, despite the fact that in the beginning people were prone to exclaim, "what a terrible accident", this was no accident. Far from it. The disaster that befell The Deepwater Horizon was the result of very high-risk human decisions in the face of overwhelming evidence that should have caused them to turn back. But don't take my word for it.

The following is from an article in sciencemag.org entitled Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
"Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch. One liter of water ice that has trapped individual methane molecules in the "cages" of its crystal structure can release 168 liters of methane gas when the ice decomposes. 
Bea [professor Robert Bea, of University of California, Berkeley], who has 55 years of experience assessing risks in and around offshore operations, says 
"there was concern at this location for gas hydrates. We're out to the [water depth] where it ought to be there." The deeper the water, the greater the pressure, which when high enough can keep hydrates stable well below the sea floor. .... And there were signs that drillers did encounter hydrates. About a month before the blowout, a "kick" of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. "Something under high pressure was being encountered," 
says Bea—apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions."[3]

This is from a piece on the History channel titled, Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel. 
"The Horizon rig’s mechanic stated the well had problems for months, the drill repeatedly kicked due to methane gas pressure, the levels of gas were twice as high as he’d ever seen in his career. According to interviews with platform workers conducted during BP’s internal investigation, a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding. .......the upper mile of seafloor is cemented by methane hydrate which is much like permafrost and is stratified in layers. It melts and changes phases instantly back into gas at about 60F or 17C degrees. We have every reason to believe the hot pressurized oil and gas is eroding layers of formations from large leaks 1000 feet below the well head, probably more leaks below. There seems to be no way to stop this well and the processes will likely continue like opening cracks in a dam. At some point the well head pipe will blow off leaving an open hole … the substrate rock is fractured below the previously impermeable hydrate layers above."[4]
This warning is from an article title BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate on a site, wakeupfromyourslumber.com.
"Because drilling can bring warm fluids up from depth, potentially melting the shallower gas hydrate, many researchers and engineers anticipate that drilling through gas hydrate may pose a hazard to the stability of the well, the platform anchors, the tethers, or even entire platforms."[5]

A further warning on Discovery is contained in this piece titled, Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters. 
"The decision by BP and many other energy companies to drill through areas of unusual ice-like crystals -- called methane hydrates -- is a risky one fraught with huge consequences for failure. .... "
"Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it's been well established for decades that they are dangerous," 
said Richard Charter, head of the Defenders of Wildlife marine program and member of the Department of Energy's methane hydrates advisory panel. 
"Until 10 or 15 years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what. .... Now, 
Charter said, 
the rush to produce more oil for domestic consumption has forced companies like BP to take bigger risks by drilling in deep waters that are a breeding ground of hydrates. And they worry that a new drilling push into the Arctic Ocean -- which President Barack Obama has authorized to begin next month -- could expose a fragile and remote environment to additional risks from catastrophic oil spills." [7]

This sort of thing is not new. I was with Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster from a chemical gas leak at one of their plants in Bhopal India that killed several thousand people living near the plant. You could virtually hear the collective exhaled sigh of relief from the rest of the petrochemical industry at the time. The disaster at Bhopal was an accident waiting to happen, just as was the BP Gulf oil spill. The practices employed in the petrochemical industry, though within industry and legislative guidelines, were inevitably going to result in an event like Bhopal. The collective sigh of relief within the industry after Bhopal was the relief that it had happened to some other company first.

And therein lies the basis of my one tiny bit of sympathy for BP. Even though an entire industry my utilize practices that are inevitably going to lead to a disaster somewhere down the road (and huge, and very expensive political lobbies generally exist to make sure their hands aren't tied by needless safety standards), the blame for that disaster, when it happens, falls squarely on the sole shoulders of the one company that unfortunately is first to fall on its face. They bear all of the blame and finger pointing, even (or especially?) from others within their own industry employing the same risky practices, simply because they were the first to fall into the trap. The others within the industry are often prevented from later falling into the same trap by changes in the legislative and monitoring environment, changes that should have existed before.

Following Bhopal, Union Carbide eventually was broken into its component parts and sold off, along with company assets, in order for some shell of the former industrial giant to survive. And BP, the disaster already costing them untold billions, will undoubtedly go through the same process as it spirals downward. It may, like Union Carbide, ultimately survive, or it may not.

As another example, similar industry-wide risks are being taken throughout the US by the shale-gas industry. They use a process called hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale rock. A massive surge in drilling - with hundreds of thousands of new gas wells across the country - was begun under the Bush administration. That industry, with the help and blessing of Vice President Cheney's NEPDG (National Energy Policy Development Group) was summarily exempted from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and dozens of other similar pieces of needlessly restrictive environmental legislation passed over the previous decades intended to protect the environment. The very predictable result is that underground water supplies and aquifers in most areas where this type of drilling is done have been contaminated with both natural gas and the toxic chemicals used in the drilling and extraction processes. People previously utilizing those underground water sources can now literally burn the water coming out of their taps because it is so highly contaminated with natural gas. They may not have drinkable water but at least they're getting their gas for free.

As those who have followed my blog know - and I apologize for the drop-off in articles over this past winter and spring because of personal health issues - I have been writing about methane hydrates for over four years now. And I strongly believe the BP Gulf disaster is far from over. I believe the whole reserve of Methane Hydrates through which the BP rig drilled has been destabilized and will continue to release its methane into the Gulf - readings near the well head already indicate methane levels up to a million times higher than normal - for many years to come. I further believe that if the well is successfully capped the hydrates will continue to release their methane and eventually result in a massive and explosive methane release the likes of which has not been seen in recorded history. In addition, recent readings indicate that the free oil in the Gulf is declining due to a virtual explosion of the bacteria that consume the oil. But that is a double edged sword because this bacterial bloom is rapidly building a dead zone in the Gulf with insufficient oxygen to support the marine life that normally inhabits these warm tropical waters.

But as bad as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking may have been and as environmentally disastrous as the resulting Gulf oil spill is, this is still not the really serious environmental disaster I foresee if we continue toward full exploitation of Methane Hydrates as an energy source. And that is a serious interest and intent of the governments of several nations, among them; Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, India, China, Canada, and the U.S. And the list grows every day.

The problem is - and this is a subject that is constantly debated - that methane hydrates are inherently unstable. It is a structure (methane gas trapped in a cage of water ice) composed of two opposing forces; the attempt by the ice cage to retain its crystalline structure and the attempt by the methane concentrated within that structure to re-expand (168 times) back into a free gas. And the only one of those two opposing forces that is stable and constant is that of the gas trying to free itself from the structure. The ice that contains it is subject to change with any change in the pressure around it or the temperature, or both.

If deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or, more seriously, in the fragile Arctic Ocean, continues to push into Methane Hydrate zones, the risk of massive hydrate destabilization grows with each well. Once a deposit of Methane Hydrates is destabilized, if changes in temperature or pressure are sufficient to support it, the whole deposit can release its methane. That release could be gradual but there is just as strong a probability that it could be explosive and massive. Remember, methane is concentrated at 168 times the density of the gas in hydrate form, meaning it will expand 168 times when it reverts back into a gas. This can cause an explosive uplift in the seafloor overlaying the hydrate formation. It could result in a collapse of that area of seafloor. In either case, if rapid and explosive enough, the release could trigger a tsunami. The resulting environmental damage of such an event in the Arctic, or the serious potential of risk for residents living along the gulf shore on the Gulf of Mexico should such an event happen there, should cause both governments and energy companies to take serious pause following the current Gulf oil spill. A simple question needs to dominate all such discussions and considerations. Is our thoughtless energy greed worth the rapidly escalating risks that our pursuit of that energy is causing us to take?

Will that question even be considered?

1) Global Oil Supply Now Contracting?
2) BP’s oil spill fight plagued by methane hydrates, a hazard of deep water
3) Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
4) Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel
5) BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate
6) BP Oil Spill – Methane Hydrate Never Mentioned – For What it’s Worth Buffalo Springfield
7) Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters
Energy companies used to avoid methane hydrates no matter what. Now the industry may be drilling right into danger.
8) Ocean Warming Melts Methane Hydrates Which Screws Us All

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Balanced (hopefully) look at Methane Hydrates

When it comes to the issue of exploiting permafrost/undersea Methane Hydrates I definitely have a strong bias. I am against it. Nonetheless there are strong and, from some perspectives, valid opinions to the contrary. In this article I will attempt to present a balance of both sides of the argument, while taking certain editorial license consistent with my bias.

If you study the methane hydrate literature, as I have for the past several years - the newspaper and magazine articles, the web sites and blogs, the scientific papers - the one thing that is clear is that there are a lot of different and conflicting opinions in play. That is understandable. It is only in these past thirty years that the role of methane as an important carbon sink and a serious greenhouse gas, and the potential of methane hydrates as a fossil-fuel-replacing energy source have come to the forefront. Significant study of methane hydrates is really only in its infancy, and it is being driven, sponsored and financed by two different, opposing objectives. In fairness, however, I must point out that at this stage there are nearly as many concerns expressed and warnings issued from the energy industry as there are from the scientific community. The difference is that one side downplays the concerns and warnings and the other side pushes them to the forefront.

It is, nonetheless, those two different aspects of methane hydrates - as a source of the serious greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and as a potential energy source - that are at the heart of the divergence of opinion. Those, like myself, focused on methane as a greenhouse gas see the potentially serious environmental risks and dangers involved in attempting to exploit methane hydrates, especially in view of our energy exploitation track record. Those focused on methane hydrates as a major potential energy source tend to downplay the risks and dangers in the name of "need", progress and national energy security.

But haven't we been here before? The orchestrated debate over cigarettes and tobacco? The debate constantly swirling around the burning of fossil fuels? The debate over biofuels contributing to escalating global hunger? The furious global warming debate? Even the rancorous terminology hurled from either side of the debate is the same.

I have listed nearly thirty online sources at the end of this article that show, as clearly and in as balanced a manner as I can manage, the clear divergence of literature fostered by the two different camps. If you are uncertain how you feel about the exploitation of methane hydrates, or if you are looking to build your knowledge about them I urge you to visit as many of these sites as possible. Alternatively, google searches will give you literally hundreds of thousands of references and sites to investigate. If you are looking for an overview, with a bias toward a concern for the risks and dangers, I invite you to read the several other articles I have written in my blog on the subject.

Unintended consequences

Various sites listed deal with unintended consequences. We can destabilize a reserve of methane hydrates accidentally when we aren't even attempting to exploit it. Methane Hydrate: A surprising compound, has this, ".....ocean-based oil-drilling operations sometimes encounter methane hydrate deposits. As a drill spins through the hydrate, the process can cause it to dissociate. The freed gas may explode, causing the drilling crew to lose control of the well. Another concern is that unstable hydrate layers could give way beneath oil platforms or, on a larger scale, even cause tsunamis."[2] Gas Hydrates: Natural gas hydrate studies in Canada, adds, "Shallow gas in the Mackenzie Delta, that may be attributable to hydrate, resulted in the loss of life of two drillers during early exploration." and includes this warning, "Present atmospheric methane is increasing at such a rate that if it continues, methane will be the dominant greenhouse gas in the second half of the century."[4] And methane, I remind you, is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

What unintended consequences might occur when we are intentionally interfering with methane hydrate reserves, with whatever extraction technology we might use? Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game, addresses this issue directly. "The paradox is that while gas can be extracted from methane hydrates, doing so poses potentially catastrophic risks. ..... A substantial amount of evidence suggests that weakening the lattice-like structure of gas hydrates has triggered underwater landslides on the continental margin. In other words, the extraction process, if done improperly, could cause sudden disruptions on the ocean floor, reducing ocean pressure rates and releasing methane gas from hydrates."[6] This is addressed further in Realizing the Energy Potential of Methane Hydrate for the United States, in this statement. "The production of methane from methane hydrate also involves potential drilling and production safety issues and environmental consequences. Production safety issues are sometimes called “geohazards” because they refer to adverse geologic and environmental consequences that may result from human disturbance of the methane hydrate and surrounding sedimentary layers."[12] However a strong counter argument is presented in, Methane and Methane Hydrates, Section 2, "Nonetheless, the hydrates in the sediments of the seafloor do remain frozen: after all, they are icy lattices. In addition, they remain frozen even well above the normal melting point of ice (0°C; 32°F), and at temperatures up to about 15°C (59°F). They manage this feat because of the enormous pressure that exists at these depths."[15]

Political Pressures to use Methane as an Energy Source

The use of methane as a fuel and energy source is not some distant pipe dream. Significant quantities of methane (produced with digesters from animal manure) are already in use in some countries such as Denmark. But there appears to be serious political pressure and a genuine rush on to get at and use permafrost and undersea methane hydrates as a game-changing energy source, as outlined in Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game. "Major government research initiatives have been launched in China, India, Germany, Norway, Russia, Taiwan and several other countries." the article says. "The Japanese government has estimated that producing gas from methane hydrates is commercially viable when oil prices rise above $54 a barrel. ..... To date, Japan has made the biggest bet on methane hydrates and appears to be the closest to commercial production."[6]

The underpinning of the political pressures to exploit methane hydrates can clearly be seen in this statement from Methane Hydrate - The Gas Resource of the Future. "According to EIA, total U.S. natural gas consumption is expected to increase from about 22 trillion cubic feet today to 26 trillion cubic feet in 2030- a projected jump of more than 18 percent [ed note: If natural gas to liquid is pursued as a serious alternative source of transportation fuel this estimate is far too low.]. ..... Production of domestic conventional and unconventional natural gas cannot keep pace with demand growth. The development of new, cost-effective resources such as methane hydrate can play a major role in moderating price increases and ensuring adequate future supplies of natural gas for American consumers."[11]

Optimistic Time Frames

That same site gives us a glimpse into the optimistic time frames being suggested and pursued. "We think that the future may be sooner than some of us are considering," Robert Hunter, president of ASRC Energy Services, which led the first major field study in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay with BP Alaska Exploration and the Department of Energy, told Petroleum News. "In parts of the world such as the North Slope, with unique motivation, hydrates may become a very stable source of natural gas within the next five to 10 years."[6] One wonders what he means with that phrase, "....with unique motivation....". Another view of the time frames is presented in Methane Hydrate Could Augment Natural Gas Supplies. "DOE's program and programs in the national and international research community provide increasing confidence from a technical standpoint that some commercial production of methane from methane hydrate could be achieved in the United States before 2025," said Charles Paull .... senior scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California."[9]

Risks and Dangers

Another view of the risks and dangers involved, with or without human involvement and exploitation, is addressed in Gas (Methane) Hydrates -- A New Frontier, "Seafloor slopes of 5 degrees and less should be stable on the Atlantic continental margin, yet many landslide scars are present. The depth of the top of these scars is near the top of the hydrate zone, and seismic profiles indicate less hydrate in the sediment beneath slide scars. Evidence available suggests a link between hydrate instability and occurrence of landslides on the continental margin."[7]

A variety of extraction techniques are being looked at to overcome the inherent difficulties in exploiting methane hydrates, as detailed in A Breakthrough in Fuel Supplying From Methane Hydrates. "Getting methane hydrate gas to flow consistently and predictably, however, has been the problem. Using heat to release the gas works, but requires too much energy to be useful. Researchers have also been trying to release the methane by reducing the pressure on it. Then last month, the Mallik team became the first to use reduced pressure to get a steady, consistent flow."[13] Both of these techniques, however, and others, run the risk that once they successfully destabilize and disassociate the methane hydrates in any part of the reserve it could lead to a catastrophic runaway destabilization of the entire reserve, a warning repeated often through the literature listed at the end of this article. In the paper, Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan? the concern over this potential is rooted in the geological past. "The new paper suggests that exactly this type of cascading release of methane reserves rapidly warmed the Earth 635 million years ago, replacing an Ice Age with a period of tropical heat. The study’s lead author suggests it could happen again, and fast - not over thousands or millions of years, but possibly within a century. ..... "This is a major concern because it’s possible that only a little warming can unleash this trapped methane," Martin Kennedy, a professor at UC Riverside, said in a release. "Unzippering the methane reservoir could potentially warm the Earth tens of degrees, and the mechanism could be geologically very rapid."."[23] The paper goes on to state that these concerns have caused a new focus in the scientific community. "Jim Kennett, a professor of geology and paleobiology at UC Santa Barbara, said that finding climate triggers and tipping points had become the most important scientific problem of our time."[23] These views, however, are not universal in the scientific community. "David Archer, a University of Chicago geosciences professor, argued in a paper last year that methane release appears likely to be "chronic rather than catastrophic" and only on the scale of human fossil-fuel combustion."[23] The concerns, however, are reiterated in Runaway Methane Global Warming. "From these records it appears that there have been short periods of only a few hundred years in the geological past when rapid increases of the Earth's temperature have occurred superimposed on top of the rise and fall of average temperatures over the longer term. For these short periods temperature rises of up to 8 degrees centigrade appear to have occurred on top of existing long term rises of 5 to 7 degrees to give temperatures up to 15 degrees centigrade warmer than today. Temperatures then fell back to the long term trend, the whole rise and fall only lasting a few hundred years. The most likely cause of this rapid global warming over such a short period is the release of methane into the atmosphere."[25]

In Methane Hydrates: A Carbon Management Challenge, the serious questions about the risks and dangers are asked but with no pretense of supplying answers or solutions. "What are the risks of recovering methane from ocean hydrates? Could the release of methane make the sediments unstable enough to cause the collapse of seafloor foundations for conventional oil and gas drilling rigs? Could the melting, or dissociation, of methane hydrate ice lead to releases of large volumes of methane to the atmosphere, raising greenhouse gas levels and exacerbating global warming?"[20] The depth and breadth of these issues are honestly explored in the U.S. Department of Energy paper, Methane Hydrates. "However, the issues surrounding methane hydrates go well beyond its energy resource potential. As field and laboratory studies supported by the Methane Hydrates Program continue to document hydrate’s integral and active role in the global environment, important new questions are raised about the influence of hydrates on the global carbon cycle, deep sea life, sea-floor stability, and other phenomena."[21] That verbiage, however, may just serve as a preamble to this, "Therefore, the National Methane Hydrate R&D Program is driven by the need to better understand the nature of hydrates, hydrate-bearing sediments, and the interaction between the global methane hydrate reservoir and the world’s oceans and atmosphere as a compliment to the ultimate realization of hydrate’s energy potential."[21]

If our global industrial society is to be kept rolling along at anything near its current vigorous pace, there is no question that global peaks in oil, natural gas and/or coal are going to require the exploitation of new energy sources such as methane hydrates, coal-bed methane, shale gas, shale oil, and the re-embracing of nuclear energy as a primary source of electrical energy. Plans for the exploitation of methane hydrates, however, in the name of energy security and in pursuit of the dream of national energy independence are not likely to materialize as governments and politicians hope and intend, It is very likely that methane will be drawn under the umbrella of natural gas and subject to global market trading and pricing. It is even more likely that the reserves of methane hydrates will end up in the hands of energy companies who are already lining up to buy leases in areas where significant methane hydrate reserves are suspected. Additionally the research and development on technologies for the extraction of methane hydrates is being driven and financed by these same energy companies. The likelihood of them willingly giving over control of those leases and that extraction to government energy departments is very slim. They will, after all, be moving heavily into these alternatives because their current cash cows are drying up. They need them for their future financial stability and continued growth.

I am quite sure that nothing bloggers such as myself or scientists have to say will ultimately have any bearing on what governments and the energy industry will do with methane hydrates. The best we can hope is to keep them honest.

Reference material

The following links were important sources of material for this article and are here for your reference.

1) Arctic Methane on the Move?
2) Methane Hydrate: A surprising compound
3) Methane hydrates
4) Gas Hydrates: Natural gas hydrate studies in Canada
5) Methane hydrates and global warming
6) Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game
7) Gas (Methane) Hydrates -- A New Frontier
8) Japan eyes methane hydrate as energy savior
9) Methane Hydrate Could Augment Natural Gas Supplies
10) Japan Mines `Flammable Ice,' Flirts With Environmental Disaster
11) Methane Hydrate - The Gas Resource of the Future
12) Realizing the Energy Potential of Methane Hydrate for the United States
13) A Breakthrough in Fuel Supplying From Methane Hydrates
14) Permafrost Melting and Stability of Offshore Methane Hydrates Subject to Global Warming
16) Methane Hydrate Extraction To Become Viable?
17) Gas Hydrates: Entrance to a Methane Age or Climate Threat?
18) Ocean methane hydrates as a slow tipping point in the global carbon cycle
19) More evidence of climate change: Arctic methane hydrates evaporating
20) Methane Hydrates: A Carbon Management Challenge
22) Methane Hydrates: An Abundance of Clean Energy?
23) Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan?
24) Methane Hydrates: What are they thinking?
25) Runaway Methane Global Warming
26) Melting of permafrost could trigger rapid global warming warns UN
27) METHANE HYDRATE ICE: A Possible Mechanism For Ice Age And Global Warming Cycles
28) Ice Sculptures for Science: Chain Saws, Pickaxes, Methane Hydrates and Climate Change
29) Global Warming: Methane Could Be Far Worse Than Carbon Dioxide

1 comment:

timpanogos said...

There needs to be more discussion of this issue of hydrates among policy makers, those who make the rules on safety of deepwater drilling. Not saying you got it all right, but somebody needs to break the ice, so to speak.

Way too much of this discussion is effectively hidden in the technical journals.

Ed Darrell