« What This Country Needs...(#2 in a series) | Main | A Different Kind of Car Race »

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.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Fire and Ice -- The Promise:

» Fire and Ice -- The Risk from The Speculist
Fire from ice. Intriguing. What do we know about this strange strange substance that goes by the name methane clathrate? Wikipedia tells us: Methane clathrate, also called methane hydrate or methane ice, is a form of water ice that... [Read More]

» The L2si Report #2 from L2si
All this week we'll be celebrating the 3rd blogiversary of the Speculist, starting here on L2si with the second edition of our new podcast, the L2si Report. The new edition includes: A different kind of auto race Making fire... [Read More]


It would be wonderful if we could harvest the methane from under the sea and from the permafrost. To understand why it is impractical to harvest a significant amount to prevent runaway global warming, you need to visualize the vast space this methane clathrate occupies. It is like proposing building a sprinkler system for the forests to extinguish forest fires.

To quote the recent Sciencemag.org article "Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget" (remember permafrost has an est 400 billion tons of methane in clathrate on dry land, while the oceans have an est 10,000 billion tons of methane in clathrate under water):

"Factors inducing high-latitude climate warming should be mitigated to minimize the risk of a potentially large carbon release that would further increase warming."

That goes 25 times for the vastly more inaccessible ocean deposits of carbon in the form of methane.

The idea that such harvesting of ocean deposits would be possible, let alone practical or economically viable is farfetched.

• There is an estimated 400 billion tons of methane trapped in permafrost ice.

• An estimated 50% of surface permafrost will melt by 2050, and 90% by 2100.

• Methane is more than 20 times as strong a greenhouse gas as CO2-the sudden release of just 35 billion tons of methane would be like doubling the CO2 in the air.

• Ocean bottom ice will start to melt-releasing some of the estimated 10,000 billion tons of methane trapped in it.

• The only solution is biological sequestration-removing the CO2 from the air after it is emitted.


Your sprinkler metaphor misses the point I think.

You've set the bar too high. The initial goal would not be to get rid of enough methane to save the world from a series of catastrophic methane burps.

The question is whether it would be economically feasible (cheaper per BTU to harvest and use than oil) to get started.

If it is (or we can get ramped up to make it so), then we have a vast energy resource that happens to be cleaner burning (CO2-wise) than oil.

Significantly reducing the amount of methane on the ocean floor that can be burped into the atmosphere wouldn't happen for a long, long time.

But hey, if using it instead of petroleum immediately reduces greenhouse gas emmissions (thereby reducing the risk of a methane burp) why not get started?

The fact that it's in international waters rather than under the land of troubled societies is a nice plus too.


What do you think of the "iron the oceans" idea for sequestering carbon?


- Stephen

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)