Fire and Ice -- The Promise
Over on the Speculist I just a wrote a short piece about the potential environmental dangers posed by methane clathrate -- the burning ice pictured above. But danger is only part of the story. To quote a recent Popular Mechanics article on the subject:
Natural gas locked up in methane hydrates could be the world's next great energy source--if engineers can figure out how to extract it safely.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 100,000 to 300 million trillion cu. ft. (tcf) of methane exists globally in hydrate form--most of it in the ocean floor. "There's more energy potential locked up in methane hydrate formations across the world than in all other fossil energy resources combined," says Brad Tomer, director of the Department of Energy's Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil.
That sounds like good news.
Plus, let's not forget a point I raised in the earlier entry -- methane burns much cleaner than any other fossil fuel. So we have more of this stuff than we do any other energy source and it would be a net plus for the environment if we were to start using it (to the exclusion of dirtier fuels.)
Of course, the risk is still there that methane clathrate could do some significant harm to our environment. To reiterate another point raised in the earlier post -- methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. We have to be really careful with that stuff. If we go heating the planet up so that too much of it is released into the atmosphere, a dangerous chain reaction might ensue wherein warmer temperatures cause more methane to be released...leading to still warmer temperatures. And so on.
On the other hand, isn't there room for a win-win scenario, here? Let's say we start (very carefully) extracting methane gas from hydrate deposits that are determined to be at the greatest risk for melting anyway. That would make sense, wouldn't it? That way we protect the environment while making the switch to a new, cleaner energy source. Once the process is perfected for safely extracting methane from methane clathrate with minimal or no leakage, we begin widespread extraction, eventually switching to methane as our principle fuel source. If petroleum emissions are making the planet warmer and increasing the risk that additional methane will be released into the atmosphere, wouldn't burning methane -- a cleaner fuel -- help cut that risk?
It's two sides of the same coin. By developing a new energy source, we make the planet cleaner. Or, if you prefer, by making a modest effort to clean up the planet, we open up a new energy source.
Sounds like we win either way.