Japan Will Drill for Methane Off Its Shores

Japan will attempt to tap frozen methane gas deposits off its southeast coast by drilling a series of deep-sea test wells early next year, the Guardian newspaper reported on Monday.

The project will assess the commercial viability of tapping the deposits, called methane hydrates, which lie below thousands of feet of seawater and sediment. The drilling will be done by the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, in association with the Japanese government. The Japanese Ministry of Trade has requested more than $1 billion for the project, slated to begin in the spring.

Methane hydrates form in cold, high-pressure environments and are found throughout the world’s oceans and beneath the frozen ground of high-latitude countries. Methane is a clean-burning fuel, but is also a powerful greenhouse gas, with roughly 21 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide.  

The energy content of the Earth’s methane hydrates — sometimes called “fire ice” or “ice that burns” — is vast, possibly greater than that of all other fossil fuels combined, according to the United States  Department of Energy.

The gas deposits have yet to be tapped successfully on a commercial scale, but Japan, which lacks much in the way of domestic energy supplies and imports more than 99 percent of its oil, is at the forefront of efforts to do so.

In 2008, Japanese engineers extracted methane from hydrate deposits nearly a mile beneath the Canadian tundra, in what was hailed as a major breakthrough in the field. The Japanese government has declared its intention to commercially tap methane hydrates by 2018.

India and China have discovered huge frozen methane deposits off their own coasts, and both countries are seeking ways to develop the finds into commercially exploitable energy sources.

The environmental risks posed by undersea hydrates alarm some scientists and environmentalists, however. Potential dangers involve inadvertently setting off undersea landslides, which could wipe out nearby seafloor life, and uncontrollable methane leaks from destabilized gas and hydrate formations.

Massive eruptions of methane gas from melting or collapsing undersea hydrates have occurred naturally in the distant past as a result of rapid climate warming, studies have shown.

Yet engineers involved in the hydrate exploration projects and some energy experts discount the possibility that drilling could trigger massive accidental releases of methane.

“Can environmental disaster happen by gas hydrate production? The answer is no,” Koji Yamamoto, a project director for the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, told The Asia Times in December 2009

By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF/NYT

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