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?
http://peakoil.com/production/global-oil-supply-now-contracting/
2) BP’s oil spill fight plagued by methane hydrates, a hazard of deep water
http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2010/05/10/bps-oil-spill-fight-plagued-by-methane-hydrates-a-hazard-of-deep-water/
3) Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/05/gulf-spill-did-pesky-hydrates-tr.html
4) Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel
http://www.oilspillupdates.com/oil-spill-videos/methane-hydrate-explosion-wars-for-oil-bp-oil-spill-doomsday-scenario-from-history-channel/
5) BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate
http://www.wakeupfromyourslumber.com/video/sullivan/bp-oil-spill-methane-hydrate
6) BP Oil Spill – Methane Hydrate Never Mentioned – For What it’s Worth Buffalo Springfield
http://usgulfoilspill.com/gulf-oil-spill-videos/bp-oil-spill-methane-hydrate-never-mentioned-for-what-its-worth-buffalo-springfield/
7) Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters
http://news.discovery.com/earth/oil-spill-methane-hydrates.html
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
http://deepseanews.com/2010/07/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
15) METHANE AND METHANE HYDRATES, SECTION 2
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
21) METHANE HYDRATES
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

methane hydrates: Published Apr 3 2005 ( !!!) by The Guardian (UK)

US in race to unlock new energy source

by David Adam

More than a mile below the choppy Gulf of Mexico waters lies a vast, untapped source of energy. Locked in mysterious crystals, the sediment beneath the seabed holds enough natural gas to fuel America's energy-guzzling society for decades, or to bring about sufficient climate change to melt the planet's glaciers and cause catastrophic flooding, depending on whom you talk to.

No prizes for guessing the US government's preferred line. This week it will dispatch a drilling vessel to the region, on a mission to bring this virtually inexhaustible new supply of fossil fuel to power stations within a decade.

The ship will hunt for methane hydrates, a weird combination of gas and water produced in the crushing pressures deep within the earth - literally, ice that burns.

The stakes could not be higher: scientists reckon there could be more valuable carbon fuel stored in the vast methane hydrate deposits scattered under the world's seabed and Arctic permafrost than in all of the known reserves of coal, oil and gas put together.

"The amount of energy there is just too big to ignore," said Bahman Tohidi, head of the centre for gas hydrate research at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. "It's not easy, but it's not something we can say we can't do so let's forget about it."

Britain may miss out on any future methane hydrate boom - the North Sea is too shallow and no deposits have been found in the deeper waters further north - but other countries have recognised their potential. Japan, India and Korea, as well as the United States, are investing millions of pounds in hydrate research.
Ray Boswell, who heads the hydrate programme at the US department of energy's national energy technology laboratory, said the US was determined to be the first to mine the resource.

"Commercially viable production is definitely realistic within a decade. The world is investing in hydrates, and one reason for us to do this is to maintain our leadership position in this emerging technology."

Its new project will see the drilling vessel Uncle John spend about a month in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will bore down to two of the largest expected methane hydrate deposits in the region. Scientists on the ship will collect samples for experiments to see how the methane might be freed and transported to the surface.

This is harder than it sounds. In some deposits the crystals occur in thick layers, in others they are found as smaller nuggets. Puncture one hydrate reservoir and the giant release of gas can disrupt drilling, pierce another and getting the methane out is like sucking porridge through a straw.

This unpredictable nature means energy companies traditionally view hydrates as a nuisance. This gives them a joint interest with the US government as both sides want to know where the crystals are - one to avoid them and the other to exploit them.


Mr Boswell said:

"We have a marriage of near-term industry interests and longer-term government interests. If they develop the ability to detect hydrates for the purpose of avoiding them, that's useful for people who want to do the exact same thing for the purpose of finding them."
Devinder Mahajan, a chemist at the US department of energy's laboratory in Brookhaven, is looking for ways to encourage subsea hydrate deposits to release their methane. He has developed a pressurised tank that allows scientists to study hydrate formation. "You fill the vessel with water and sediment, put in methane gas and cool it down under high pressure. After a few hours, the hydrates form, you can actually see it. They look like ice, but they're not," he said. "This is a very important issue, tied to our future national energy security."

Hydrates on land are easier to get at, and in 2003 a team of oil companies and scientists from Canada, Japan, India, Germany and the US showed it was possible to produce methane from the icy deposits below Canada's Northwest Territories. BP and the US government are carrying out similar experiments in Alaska.
Environmental groups oppose attempts to extract methane from hydrate reserves.

Roger Higman, a climate change campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: 

"The Americans are desperately looking around trying to boost their fossil fuels because they think the oil is going to run out or there's going to be a scarcity. The actual scarcity is in the space the atmosphere has for taking the carbon dioxide that burning methane produces."

He added: 

"We already have enough fossil fuel in the world that, if burnt, will ruin the world's climate. Rather than look for more, we need to keep the oil, gas and coal we already know about underground and develop alternative sources of energy, principally renewables."

Paul Johnston, a scientist in the Greenpeace laboratory at Exeter University, warned that disturbing hydrate deposits under the seabed was a risky strategy.

"There are legitimate concerns that attempts to tap into these reserves could cause very widespread destabilisation of the seabed and damage to ecosystems," 
 he said.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, he said, and any released during production would make global warming worse.

Mr Boswell said methane was more environmentally friendly than oil and coal, because it produced less carbon dioxide when burnt.

"The prudent approach is to address all the avenues for supplying future energy," he said. "People who say it has to be one or the other, I think, are putting too many eggs in one basket."

22 December 2010

Natural Gas "mythology/propoganda: Alternet

15 Claims the Natural Gas Industry Wants You to Believe and Why They’re Wrong

Industry spends millions trying to convince the public and our lawmakers of the benefits of "natural" gas, but a quick look at the propaganda reveals some deep flaws.
 The gall of gas megacorporations is surpassed only by the preposterousness of their claims. They spend millions each year trying to convince the public and our lawmakers of the benefits of "natural" gas (NG), but a quick look at their propaganda reveals some deep flaws. 
   
Take this commercial by the Houston-headquartered multi-billion-dollar Spectra Energy as an example. In just a two-and-a-half minute attempt to woo people to NG, they actually make 15 claims that don't hold water. In a world facing global climate woes, exploding population, dependence on foreign energy and inflation -- what should we do? Turn to NG, according to Spectra. But here's where their reasoning is just plain wrong.

1. Industry claim: "Natural gas is clean."
TRUTH: Here the industry is carefully trying to pull the wool over our eyes. You can't just talk about burning gas versus oil once it's in the furnace in your house; you have to look at the entire lifecycle of gas. The lifecycle cost of NG in terms of carbon dioxide and methane emission during its exploration, extraction, processing, and transportation to point of use, is no better than that of oil or coal and may even be higher than that of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

2. Industry claim: "Natural gas is the cleanest-burning conventional fuel."
TRUTH: Nope. See 1 and 3.

3. Industry claim: "Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal or oil (45 percent less than coal, 30 percent less than oil)." 
TRUTH: See number 1. Also, methane is 20-25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, meaning it's that much more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
Methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and water vapor are the major greenhouse gases associated with the production, transmission, processing, storage, distribution, and use of natural gas. Emissions of these gases associated with natural gas, excluding water vapor, were about 20 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007 (in carbon dioxide equivalent). Methane, the main component of natural gas, is released directly to the atmosphere when it leaks from natural gas wells and pipelines and processing and storage facilities. These methane emissions in 2007 were the source of about 25% of total U.S. methane emissions, but only 2.7% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
And:
Carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor are produced when natural gas is burned. Some CO2 is also released when it is removed from natural gas. Carbon dioxide emissions associated with natural gas in 2007 were about 21% of total U.S. CO2 emissions and 17% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (excluding water vapor).
4. Industry claim: "Natural gas is domestically available."

TRUTH: This is technically true, but at a very heavy cost domestically. And because it's more lucrative in the current market to sell abroad, much of that domestic gas will end up being sold to other countries. Besides this, any gas that is added to the domestic market will not be replacing foreign oil or domestic coal or nuclear power; it will just be added to the energy grid.

Thirty-four states sit on gas; many of them have parts that have already been transformed into industrial wastelands. Do we want this for more states, such as New York, which is one of the next states on the chopping block? Or would we not be better off creating jobs in the renewable-energy sector and transitioning off fossil fuels now, while we still have a chance to slow (and, optimistically, maybe even halt) catastrophic global climate change?

Beyond this, nobody in the U.S. is going to get cheaper electricity or fuel because it's "domestic." Gas companies have pulled a bait-and-switch in coastal states, where gas pipelines were often originally permitted because the pipeline companies claimed to be putting them in place for import of NG. Yet once the permits were received and the pipelines laid, the industry revealed its true colors: much of this domestic NG will end up being exported because the price abroad is much better than the prices at home.

5. Industry claim: "Ninety-eight percent of all natural gas consumed in North America is produced within the continent."
TRUTH: In 2009, net U.S. imports of NG were down, but they still represented 12 percent of total consumption. Canada and Trinidad and Tobago are the largest exporters of NG to the United States. Egypt almost tripled its exports to the U.S. in 2009 and remains the second largest source of liquid NG. At the same time, the U.S. exports NG mainly to Japan and Mexico, and in 2009 added South Korea to its list of NG export customers. 

6. Industry claim: "Natural gas is abundant."
TRUTH: It is abundant, but its presence hundreds and thousands of feet beneath the surface, trapped in tiny bubbles within naturally fractured shale, means its extraction is dangerous, dirty and foolhardy. Its high life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint means it will contribute mightily to further catastrophic global climate change, at a time when the universal consensus among the world's leading scientists demonstrates that we must halt our greenhouse gas emissions before it's too late.

7. Industry claim: "Enough natural gas has been discovered to supply North America for well beyond 100 years."
TRUTH: No one really knows exactly how much natural gas exists until it is extracted. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there are "2,587 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas in the United States." The Potential Gas Committee estimates "total U.S. natural gas resources at just over 1,836 Tcf." Currently the U.S. uses 22,739 million cubic feet of natural gas per year. That means, if these rough estimates are right (and there is no way of knowing how right they are), the gas would last, at current consumption levels, between 80 and 113.76 years in the United States, but this excludes the other two countries that make up North America, Mexico and Canada.

8. Industry claim: "Natural gas usage is becoming even more efficient."
TRUTH: Maybe so in its in-building use, but we're decades away from technologies making it efficient enough; meanwhile, its usage is not attractive enough to warrant killing people and ecosystems, and poisoning our environment and landscapes, to get to it. And it is highly inefficient in its leakage of methane and other greenhouse gases during extraction and transportation.

9. Industry claim: "Natural gas is reliable."
TRUTH: We can certainly rely on the fact that fracking will poison air, water, soil, food supplies and people; that there will be accidents that cause damage to property and kill people; and that its exploration, extraction, and related processes around the world will add untold amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, hastening catastrophic global climate change.

10. Industry claim: "Natural gas can be counted on as a primary fuel as well as the most reliable backup to renewable energies. Natural gas is there when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine."
TRUTH: This is a moot point. Battery systems are available to store the energy produced by wind power when the wind isn't blowing and by solar power when the sun isn't shining (such as at night). And other renewable energy resources, such as geothermal, don't have the environmental risks associated with gas; in fact, there are few if any risks associated with geothermal technologies.

11. Industry claim: "Natural gas is versatile" (heats, cools, provides electricity and transportation, is a main ingredient in a wide variety of products).
TRUTH: It's not the only choice we have, and we don't need to use it, and would be better off not using it, as an ingredient in textiles, cosmetics, home cleaning products, children's toys, clothing, baby bottles, and food.

12. Industry claim: "Natural gas is safe."
TRUTH: Tell that to the thousands of people around the country whose health has been adversely affected, and the many who have been killed in explosions and other accidents related to drilling for gas. (See number 13.)

13. Industry claim: "North America's continental gas pipeline system is the safest mode of energy transportation in the world today."
TRUTH: In a quick survey over the last decade alone there have been dozens and dozens of accidents with NG that have resulted in destroyed homes, catastrophic fires, and loss of life. On August 19, 2000 a natural gas pipeline rupture and fire near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killed 12 members of a family who were camping some 600 feet from the rupture. The pipeline, operated by El Paso Natural Gas Company, was found to be badly corroded; the company's "corrosion control program failed to prevent, detect, or control internal corrosion within the company's pipeline," and government inspectors had not identified the deficiencies.
Most recently on September 9, 2010 in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco a 54-year-old high-pressure gas pipeline exploded at dinner time killing eight people and injuring many more, destroying 38 homes, damaging 120 homes and burning 10 acres of brush.

14. Industry claim: "Because NG is safe and efficient, it is used in [a high percentage of] restaurants, hospitals, offices, etc."
TRUTH: It is used in restaurants, hospitals, etc., because it is cheaper than oil, has been considered cleaner than oil and coal (because of high investment by Big Gas in marketing and lobbying), and because there have been and are few options outside fossil fuels for these big institutions to use for electricity, heating and cooling.
Besides, "per-customer consumption [of NG] fell in 16 out of the past 19 years. On a weather-adjusted basis, U.S. residential consumption over the 19-year period (1990- 2009) fell from 95 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) per customer in 1990 to 74 Mcf in 2009, or 22 percent," according to the U.S. Energy Administration’s Independent Statistics and Analysis report.

15. Industry claim: "Natural gas is needed now."
TRUTH: What is needed are clean, renewable, non-fossil-fuel energy systems if we are to halt catastrophic global climate change, protect our ecosystems, protect our precious fresh water supplies, protect our health, and keep any more states, like New York, from becoming an industrial wasteland.
 
Maura Stephens, who works as the associate director of the Park Center for Independent Media, is a writer, theater artist, educator, and peace, justice, and sustainability advocate. She lives in central New York State.
 
 

Forbes' methane hydrate hotlinks

May 08, 2010
 
Engineers back to drawing board seeking solution to slushy hydrates forming inside the "Macondome."
September 02, 2008
 
Undersea methane hydrates could power civilization for centuries--or cause a global climate disaster.
May 11, 2010
 
After failure of containment box, BP is looking for new ways to plug the oil leak, and keep Ken Salazar off its neck.
 
May 28, 2010
Forbes Asia Magazine dated June 07, 2010
 
Last August a rig drilling in the Timor Sea off Australia on behalf of Thailand's state-controlled oil company, PTTEP, suffered a blowout and caught fire.
 
May 11, 2010
Finger-pointing over the disaster makes its way to Congress with testimony from the three companies involved.
 
May 11, 2010
Congressional testimony continues the blame game over the cause of the Gulf leak.
March 09, 2010
In CERAweek speech, Jim Mulva of ConocoPhillips touts natural gas as the energy prize of the next century.
 
August 27, 2010
Energy companies could one day use dry water to trap and store gases like methane, and perhaps even CO2.
 
August 26, 2010
CCS has entered mainstream thinking, but useful technologies have not yet been tested.
 
October 01, 2008
An election year and the green power revolution collide in Washington. A look at what's ahead.

21 December 2010

Draft of Federal Report Finds Radiation Widespread in Houston Water

Mark Greenblatt
KHOU
2010-12-21 16:15:00

Houston - A draft of a soon-to-be-released federal report shows radiation in Houston's drinking water is much more widespread than city leaders previously disclosed to the public.

KHOU-TV has learned that the United States Geological Survey, which is a part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, met with Houston officials in September to present the preliminary findings of a report they do not plan to publicly release until next month.

Those findings, as summarized in a chart created by the USGS and presented to Houston officials, reveal radiation is present in some amount in nearly every Houston groundwater well the USGS tested this spring. That finding is similar to a recently released chapter of the ongoing USGS study, which was based on 28 tests the USGS performed in 2007 and 2008. The USGS concluded, after examining those older tests, that "radioactivity generally was detectable in the water samples." 

KHOU obtained the chart and first learned of the USGS study only after filing a public information request that required city officials to turn over any communication or reports they have had with outside agencies regarding radiation in the city's water supply.

The draft report is coming to light on the heels of an ongoing KHOU-TV investigation, which has revealed Houston is one of the only major cities in Texas with alpha radiation in its water supplies. Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Beaumont, Austin and others all have drinking water free of alpha radiation. Nationally, Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Detroit and a majority of major American cities do not have alpha radiation present in any detectable amount. Those water systems depend mostly on surface water sources like rivers and lakes, or on groundwater sources that are not contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive contaminants. 

Houston, which continues to depend in part on groundwater for 20 percent of its water, obtains water from wells that drill into underground aquifers surrounded by naturally occurring forms of uranium, radium and other radioactive contaminants. Those contaminants are not removed by current Houston water-treatment techniques, as the city has declined to install filters that could remove the radiation.

Houston officials previously took action at one radioactive well, in the Chasewood neighborhood of Houston, doing so only after KHOU began asking questions about state tests that found Chasewood wells repeatedly in violation of legal limits for alpha radiation.

The preview of the new federal report by USGS, which does not include any tests of the Chasewood wells, reveals Houston's problems with radioactivity in its drinking water extend far beyond the Chasewood region. The USGS preview chart shows wells serving the southwest region of the city, District 123, around Sims Bayou, in the Park Ten area, Spring Branch, Katy Addicks and Jersey Village all having so much radiation they tested above a dotted line USGS inserted to represent the federal legal limit. Some of those areas have more than one water well which is shown to test at or above the federal legal limit for alpha radiation.

"Let me translate that report in my view: Houston has a problem with its water supply," said City Council Member C.O. "Brad" Bradford, who is also the former chief of police in Houston.

"There's radiation in Houston's water supplies across the Houston area that's completely unacceptable. It is dangerous," he said.

Bradford said he believes city leaders have not done enough to warn residents about the increased cancer risks alpha radiation immediately poses in their drinking water. He said city residents deserve much better after just "suffering" a 40-percent hike in their water rates.

Bradford believes city officials have refused to acknowledge, so far, what he characterized as real health risks to large amounts of residents in Houston. He points to statements made by city officials this November, two months after city leaders were briefed on the upcoming USGS findings.

One statement he questioned was made by the city's public works director, Daniel Krueger, at a public meeting in November where concerned residents in the Chasewood neighborhood were demanding answers from top city leaders. Krueger repeatedly attempted to calm nerves by telling concerned citizens that Houston's water supply meets all federal and state water quality standards. Krueger added, "In the case of Houston, our citizens have been and continue to be safe."

Mayor Annise Parker echoed the statement of her appointee, but added: "The federal government, the EPA says the water is safe to drink."
Bradford says Houston may meet certain federal "legal" standards, but says city officials are wrong to say the federal government has said Houston's water is "safe."
"The EPA doesn't say that. I've read the EPA guidelines. Any level of radiation is bad, it's not good," he said.

A KHOU review of EPA regulations reveals the EPA does, in fact, say in the United States federal register that "it is assumed that any exposure to radiation may be harmful (or may increase the risk of cancer)."

Further, the EPA also says in the federal register that, "For alpha particles, it has been shown experimentally that a single alpha passing through a cell is sufficient to induce a mutational event."

Multiple toxicologists and radiation experts KHOU spoke with agree with the EPA and Bradford, that any amount of radiation exposure in drinking water increases your risk for cancer.

"I want to make sure you understand, it's all bad," Bradford said, while suggesting city leaders stop saying anything different that might leave Houstonians with a false sense of security.

KHOU asked the Department of Public Works if it had shut off any of the 10 wells the USGS preview report shows testing above even the legal limits. Early Monday evening, public works spokesperson Alvin Wright confirmed the city had not shut down any one of the 10 wells, nor had it taken any other action at them. All 10, in fact, remain available for use when needed, which mostly occurs during high-water demand periods such as mornings when people are showering or during summer months when others water their lawn.

A KHOU examination of other public records the city released reveals many of those wells are used extensively, pumping out millions of gallons of radioactive water.

Wright released a statement pointing out that the USGS only tested Houston's "untreated" water, before it is purified and sent into the distribution system.

However, Wright previously disclosed to KHOU that the city's purification process does not get radiation out. He also confirmed Houston has not installed filters that could get the radiation almost entirely out - filters that are readily available today - at any water well in the city.

"That's alarming news to me," said Dr. Louie Galloway, who lives in Spring Branch, where two wells tested by the USGS were shown to have alpha radiation above the legal limit.

"I've already had prostate cancer since living in Spring Branch. I don't know it came from the alpha contamination, I don't know that it didn't," Galloway said.

The longtime Spring Branch resident said he is losing faith in city leaders to protect his family and has stopped drinking Houston tap water as a result.

However, before you think he's overreacting, you might want to know what he does for a living.

KHOU: "You're a nuclear physicist."

Galloway: "Oh yes."

In fact, Galloway just retired this summer after teaching at the University of St. Thomas for 27 years. He says his son began to make fun of him for drinking "alpha water" and "alpha ice" after KHOU's initial reports began to air. Consequently, Galloway decided to install a special reverse osmosis water filter in his home. The filters are among the only consumer solutions that will filter out radiation, and can be obtained at any major hardware store or online beginning around $130.

KHOU: "But these are tough economic times."

Galloway:"I know, so is cancer."

Houston officials say they have the problem in hand, saying they "mix" the radioactive ground water in Spring Branch and other hot spots with radiation free water the city obtains from surface sources. The mix, they say, reduces your radiation exposure below legal limits.

Galloway says he performed a calculation which shows why that's not good enough. He says even if the city reduces the alpha radiation to a third of what federal limits will allow legally, "You're exposing your internal organs to 500 alpha particles, for every hour it's in your body."

Bradford said the city's solution should, from a moral perspective, spur them to still issue a warning to Houston residents about their increased cancer risks that remain in place because the city has not taken action.

"Tell the citizens of Houston the water we're supplying you is 'mixed' with radiation," he suggested. "How does that sound?"

Nuclear physicist Galloway said that kind of solution does not leave as good of a taste in his mouth as his newly filtered reverse osmosis water.

"The coffee tastes better and the tea tastes better. And the ice cubes are clearer."