Why Japan Is Drilling Offshore For “Burning Ice”

The newest form of natural gas might be the most potent yet. But while Japan is using it to replace nuclear power, mining it could just cause more disasters.

methane hydrate


Ever since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has been scrambling to find alternative energy sources to replace its reliance on nuclear power. Just last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for a nuclear-free future for the country. So now the technologically savvy country is attempting to perform a first in the energy industry: extracting natural gas from deposits of methane hydrate (aka “burning ice”) located in the seabed southwest of Tokyo. And it could end in disaster if Japan isn’t careful.

Methane hydrates–ice-like crystals seen in places with high pressure and low temperatures–are often found on the ocean floor, where gas crystallizes as it comes into contact with the icy sea water. No one has ever attempted to extract methane hydrates offshore; it has only been attempted on land in Canada (using technology developed in Japan, natch).

But Japan may want to take its time on the $127.5 million project, which aims to start commercial drilling early next decade. “Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it’s been well
established for decades that they are dangerous,” said Richard Charter, a member of the
Department of Energy’s methane hydrates advisory panel, in an interview last year with Discovery News. “Until 10 or 15
years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what.”

That’s because the presence of methane hydrates makes the seafloor unstable. If accidentally released into the atmosphere, methane could speed up climate change (methane is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2). And as Popular Mechanics explains, decomposing hydrates near the seafloor’s surface could cause landslides on the continental slope that trigger tsunamis.

But with big risks come big potential rewards. Methane hydrates are chock-full of natural gas; one cubic meter of methane hydrate releases a whopping 164 cubic meters of natural gas, and hydrate deposits are often hundreds of meters thick. According to the DOE, the energy content of methane in hydrate form may surpass the energy content of every other fossil fuel.

In a world with dwindling fossil fuel resources, there’s no way that energy-hungry countries can afford to ignore an opportunity like that, even as alternative energy sources gain ground. Let’s just hope that Japan–and every other country that decides to tap into the methane hydrate goldmine–takes serious safety precautions.


[Images: Top: Wikipedia; Bottom: Wikipedia]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more