After the first two gas revolutions – natural gas in the 20th century and unconventional fuels in the early 21st century – the world seems to be on the eve of a methane hydrate era
It seems that every form of methane in the energy history of humankind has its own era. As soon as we make another technological leap, we obtain access to more of the planet’s methane resources. Today, an important aspect of energy production is ensuring that the process is safe for an environment already heavily burdened by growing human demands.
On March 12, 2013, the world’s first successful experiment in offshore production of methane gas from the undersea hydrate reservoir was conducted. Gas was extracted from a layer 1,300 metres below sea level in the bed of the Sea of Japan south of Honshu.
JAPAN’S OWN ENERGY SOURCE?
The undersea area surrounding the Japanese archipelago holds an estimated 7 trillion cubic metres of methane hydrate. Japan launched its research of oceanic methane hydrate extraction back in the mid-1990s supervised by its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The research consortium MH21 was set up for this purpose. The work was split into three stages: the first was to find basic technologies to facilitate extraction; the second was trial extraction offshore; the third was to implement the technological process on a commercial scale. Stage two began in 2009 and soon enough, in June 2011, the Methane Hydrate Research Centre in Sapporo launched the first full-scale experimental simulation of this type of gas extraction. Drilling began in 2012, and the first methane gas was obtained in 2013. The next step is to conduct a commercial production trial in the eastern part of the Nankai Trough. In 2016-2018, the technology is supposed to be adapted for commercial production.
Explored and estimated methane hydrate deposits
The Japanese Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) announced the successful experiment in methane gas production on the second anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. This is hardly a coincidence. Given its nuclear concerns, Japan is speeding up the exploration of unconventional energy sources, including methane hydrate. In this, Tokyo occupies a pioneering role similar to that of the US in shale gas R&D in the 1980s. Japan is the biggest consumer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world, relying entirely on imported resources. In 2012, it imported 87.3mn tonnes, an equivalent of 122bn cubic metres of traditional gas, and the imports are growing rapidly as Japan cuts back on domestically produced nuclear energy. Thus, the country is accelerating its methane gas production experiments hoping to meet at least part of its gas needs with energy resources available under its own surrounding seabed by 2020.
So far, over 220 oceanic and sea methane hydrate reservoirs have been discovered worldwide. Most of them are at layers where the temperature remains below +4°С and the pressure is at least 20 atm. Methane hydrates are typically contained in sediments comprised of 70-80% sand and clay and 20-30% ice-like hydrates. The biggest deposits lie off the Atlantic and Pacific shores. In seabed reservoirs, hydrate layers sometimes run several hundreds of metres deep.
Another sign of the nearing gas revolution came from the US Department of Energy less than a year ago. On May 2, 2012, it announced the successful completion of a test to extract a steady flow of natural gas from onshore methane hydrates in the Alaskan North Slope permafrost. The test took place at the Ignik-Sikumi 1 test well in partnership with ConocoPhillips. In fact, the international consortium of research centres from the US, Canada and Japan had already extracted methane gas from the Mallik offshore gas hydrate test well in the Canadian Arctic as part of an experiment in 2002. However, they did not use the gas exchange technology to release methane by replacing it with carbon dioxide.
Both experiments utilized an extraction technology in which carbon dioxide is injected into the gas hydrate-bearing medium where molecules of methane are replaced with carbon dioxide molecules. This technology has been developed and enhanced in various countries, including some in Europe – at the University of Bergen in Norway and as part of the SUGAR (Submarine Gas Hydrated Reservoirs) in the Leibniz Institute for Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany. Moreover, carbon dioxide hydrate is more stable structurally than methane hydrate. This practice is considered to be the most promising for extracting methane from gas hydrates. If it does prove successful, it will solve two major global problems of simultaneous methane recovery and carbon dioxide utilization.
Deep sea drilling to extract methane hydrates
THE BIGGEST RESERVES
Total reserves of methane hydrates on the planet are currently estimated at 250 trillion cubic metres. Although pessimistic, this is still better than 187.1 trillion cubic metres of explored natural gas deposits based on the 2011 BT Statistics Review, plus all known unconventional energy sources, such as shale gas, tight gas and coal-bed methane. Nearly 98% of the world’s gas hydrate deposits are under the ocean, and only 2% lie under the Arctic permafrost. Oceanic hydrates seem to be the most promising energy source.
Apart from Japan, the US and Canada have also been involved in consistent methane hydrate research and development since the 1990s. They run national programmes aimed at explore these resources and beginning industrial recovery. India and South Korea, too, research gas hydrates intensely. China launched a similar programme in the past decade. New countries join the list of those interested in unconventional gas every year, among them Brazil, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. The development of gas hydrate extraction will promote economic development and liberation from politicized conventional natural gas supplied via pipeline. This will inevitably bring an end to the era of gas dinosaurs like Gazprom.
In practice, every extraction project carries a slew of hurdles and risks, especially technical and environmental. Drilling deep under water is challenging. If released in large amounts, methane will increase greenhouse emissions. Another risk is the unmanageable degradation of methane hydrate deposits.
JOGMEC’s Chikyū drilled for methane gas from undersea gas hydrates on March 12, 2013
The EU is not a leader in methane hydrate research despite its heavy reliance on imported natural gas. The German Marine Research Consortium accurately described the EU’s prospects in methane hydrate extraction in an analytical report for the European Parliament: “Gas hydrate deposits are in the waters around Europe – the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea, the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, and huge reserves lie in the Black Sea. No European country today has researched or developed programmes focused on gas hydrates as an energy source.” A number of R&D centres in European countries, including the UK, Norway, Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, have done some research on the matter, some of them financially supported by the European Commission. Yet, these are merely scientific research with no actual results in practice.
PROSPECTS FOR UKRAINE
In 1988-1989, exploratory expeditions found vast methane hydrate deposits beneath the Black Sea at depths of 300 - 1,000 metres. Overall, the Black Sea holds 45-75 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in gas hydrate deposits based on estimates performed in different time periods and countries. In 1972, the Black Sea was the site of the first successful extraction of gas hydrates from a seabed.
In 1993, the Ukrainian government approved the Black Sea Gas Hydrates programme to conduct vast geological exploration and develop extraction technologies. Several seismic studies were carried out and a number of expeditions sent. However, the economic crisis of the 1990s, the shortage of funding and indifference, incompetence and the major problem of government shortsightedness never allowed the industry to develop in Ukraine. This has not changed over 20 years. Notably, methane hydrate resources have not made it into the revised draft Energy Strategy of Ukraine. By inertia, this new energy source is still considered merely a field of academic interest that has no practical implementation in the foreseeable future.
Today, however, the shale gas revolution has spurred growing interest in methane hydrates both in some EU member-states and Ukraine. In 2010, cooperation began between the Institute of Biology of Southern Seas under the National Academy of Sciences in Sevastopol and MARUM, the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen, to use research vessels to explore undersea deposits. Thus, the 2010 expedition by the German Maria S. Merien vessel once again confirmed a vast gas hydrate deposit in the western shelf of the Black Sea and the area of Feodosia Bay.
In the future, major US and European companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron or Shell – all of which have explored unconventional gas deposits in Ukraine – may join the exploration of methane hydrate reserves in the Black Sea. So far, though, ConocoPhillips is the undisputed leader in the industry, and it does not operate in Ukraine.
The Institute of Biology of Southern Seas and the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde planned to explore the Black Sea prospects in a number of joint Ukrainian-German expeditions. In 2012, they signed an agreement to send three expeditions on the Ukrainian research vessel “Professor Vodyanytsky”. The project ultimately failed as the Ukrainian side could not cover its part of the funding. As always, the authorities viewed the funding of the repressive apparatus, the huge bureaucratic machine or the renovation of the President’s dacha as greater priorities than science. As a result, news of successful trial methane gas extraction from gas hydrates is coming from Japan, although Ukraine may have been a pioneer, having launched its research earlier than Japan. Yet Ukraine’s research never progressed beyond theory, despite many serious scientific accomplishments made by the National Academy’s research centres, including the Marine Hydrophysical Institute, the Institute for Physical Chemistry, the Institute for Geological Sciences, the Institute for Materials Engineering, the Institute of Gas, the Institute of Biology of Southern Seas, Odesa State Refrigeration Academy, and more.
What could possibly be done to facilitate research and exploration in Ukraine? It would make sense to launch a multilateral research programme based on a Ukrainian-German partnership involving experts from the Black Sea basin. This should be done within a Ukraine-EU framework. The interested parties could set up a Black Sea MetHydro R&D International Consortium to launch cooperation with big transnational energy companies already operating in the Black Sea. One potential objective would be to research and explore the Black Sea region, develop technologies to extract gas from offshore methane hydrates and the infrastructure to collect and transport methane to the shore, research environmental risks, and enhance the extraction technology to make it economically viable.
Another important aspect would be to obtain funding under the European Commission’s Framework Programme for Research and recall the Memorandum of Understanding between Ukraine’s Energy and Coal Ministry and Qatar Ministry of Energy and Industry signed on May 8, 2012. Among other things, the latter mentions the “Research and development of gas hydrates”. Following their bad bureaucratic habits, the authorities forgot about the document soon after they signed it.
Meanwhile, urged by the accomplishments of the U.S., Europe is also focusing more on unconventional sources of natural gas. When I mentioned that the EU should facilitate the research of methane hydrate resources at the European Parliament session in September 2012, a short yet lively discussion followed. European MPs concluded that, instead of lagging behind, Europe should invest more efforts into unconventional energy sources.
Just like the shale gas revolution preceded by 20 years of painstaking work by American scientists and engineers, the methane hydrate revolution did not happen overnight on March 12, 2013. Perhaps, the current decade will show which country can legitimately mark the beginning of the methane hydrate era. Could it possibly be the EU or Ukraine? A positive answer would only be possible through a collaboration and synergy of interested parties. So far, Japan and the US have taken the lead. Ukraine has been transitioning from its pioneering role of the early 1990s into that of an outsider, despite its obvious and threatening energy dependence on Russia as a monopolistic gas supplier.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mykhailo Honchar is President of the Kyiv-based Strategy XXI Centre for Global Studies and Energy Programme Director for the Nomos think-tank