Japan cracks seabed 'ice gas' in dramatic leap for global energy production
JAPAN'S state-owned oil and gas company JOGMEC said an exploration ship had successfully drilled 300 metres below the seabed into deposits of methane hydrate, an ice-like solid that stores gas molecules but requires great skill to extract safely.
"Methane hydrates available within Japan's territorial waters may well be able to supply the nation's natural gas needs for a century," said the company, adding that the waters under exploration also contained large reserves of rare earth metals.
Government officials said it was the world's first off-shore experiment of its kind, though Japan had been working closely with the Canadians. The US and China have their own probes under way.
The US Geological Survey said methane hydrates offered an "immense carbon reservoir", twice all other known fossil fuels on earth. However, it warned that the ecological impact was "very poorly understood".
The immediate discoveries in Japan's Eastern Tankai Trough are thought to hold 40 trillion cubic feet of methane, equal to 11 years' gas imports. The company described the gas as "burnable ice", saying the trick is to free it from a crystaline cage of water molecules by lowering the pressure. Tokyo hopes to bring the gas to market on a commercial scale within five years.
The breakthrough comes after 17 years of research and several hundred million dollars of investment. It could be the answer to Japan's prayers, ending its reliance on expensive imports of fuel to meet almost all energy needs.
The country's trade surplus has vanished since the government shut down all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and switched to other fuels, mostly liquefied natural gas (LNG). It imported a record 87 million tonnes of LNG last year at roughly five times the cost of shale gas available to US chemical companies and key industries, putting Japanese firms at a huge disadvantage.
Japan's Institute of Energy Economics said methane hydrate could be the "game-changer" that restores Japan's flagging fortunes, acting as a catalyst for revival much like the shale revolution in the US. The state oil group plans to drill to as much as 7,000 metres below the sea floor eventually, going out in seas with depths of up to 4,000 metres.
Environmentalists are deeply alarmed by the new focus on ice gas, fearing that it will set off a fresh energy race in the fragile eco-systems of the oceans and may cause landslides on the seabed.
The risk of methane leakage into the atmosphere could be a major snag. The US Geological Survey says the gas has 10 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide. (© Daily Telegraph, London)