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Why methane hydrate could soon become more controversial than fracking
Natural gas buried in Arctic permafrost could be an economic boon — but it could also drastically accelerate climate change
A drilling rig on Alaska's North Slope tests a method for extracting natural gas from methane hydrate.
A drilling rig on Alaska's North Slope tests a method for extracting natural gas from methane hydrate. AP Photo/ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., Garth Hannum
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sia's seemingly unquenchable thirst for energy — lead by China's industrial expansion and Japan's quest to replace nuclear — has scientists constantly rooting around for new sources. Now, the region is zeroing in on methane hydrate, a crystalline form of natural gas buried in Arctic permafrost and at the bottom of the ocean.

In theory, there's enough methane hydrate to put all of Asia's energy worries to rest. An estimated 700,000 trillion cubic feet of the stuff is scattered around the Earth, which constitutes more energy than all the world's known gas and oil resources combined. But accessing it in a way that makes economic and environmental sense poses all kinds of challenges.

To start with, the cost of developing any new energy is sky-high. The current cost of methane hydrate is estimated to be $30 to $60 per million British thermal units, compared to $4 per million BTUs for natural gas in the U.S. But Japan claims it can bring the new energy mainstream in the next 10 years, under the assumption that as the cost of production comes down, methane hydrate could generate the kind of economic boom fracking has reaped in North America.

But environmentalists say the potential cost of methane development extends way beyond extraction. Methane traps heat up to 20 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, though it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter time. And it's highly volatile — oil companies, when installing rigs, usually try to avoid tapping methane hydrate deposits. Scientists warn a leak of methane could be catastrophic to the environment.

Methane hydrate is already a threat, regardless of whether energy companies begin drilling for it. A paper published earlier this month in the journal Nature said a release of a 50-gigatonne reservoir of methane under the East Siberian Sea could accelerate climate change and cost the global economy up to $60 trillion. And that could happen solely due to warming temperatures in the Arctic. Reuters reports:

Methane is a greenhouse gas usually trapped as methane hydrate in sediment beneath the seabed. As temperatures rise, the hydrate breaks down and methane is released from the seabed, mostly dissolving into the seawater.

But if trapped methane were to break the sea surface and escape into the atmosphere, it could "speed up sea-ice retreat, reduce the reflection of solar energy and accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet," the study said.

It said that could bring forward the date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2 degrees Celsius by between 15 and 35 years — to 2035 if no action is taken to curb emissions and to 2040 if enough action is taken to have a 50 percent chance of keeping the rise below 2 degrees. [Reuters]

"All told it is clearly a climate disaster in the making, on top of, well, you know, the catastrophic climate disaster already proceeding full steam ahead," says Vice's Mat McDermott, after Japan successfully tapped a methane hydrate reserve for a test in March. "Regardless — and this point should be in all italics, bold, and with several exclamation points — if methane hydrates begin to get tapped en masse, our shrinking hopes of curbing climate change are gone."

Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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