14 March 2013 20:07 [Source: ICIS news]
By Lane Kelley
HOUSTON (ICIS)--Production of methane gas from so-called “flammable ice” deposits off the coast of Japan and in Alaska represent a potential energy breakthrough, US government researchers said on Thursday.
Earlier this week, a drilling ship successfully extracted gas from a layer of methane hydrates - in Japan called ignik sikumi or “fire ice” - 1,000 feet (305m) below the seabed about 50km offshore from Japan’s main island.
In early 2012, an American team extracted methane from spongy hydrates under land ice on Alaska’s North Slope, but this week’s test in Japan is a world-first because it was offshore.
Ocean deposits represent a potentially enormous supply of methane, said Ray Boswell, technology manager for methane hydrates within the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) National Energy Technology Laboratory.
“The numbers of magnitude are much greater offshore,” Boswell said.
A US government study in 2008 estimated methane hydrate deposits in the Gulf of Mexico to be 100 times greater than the then known US reserves of natural gas.
A DoE release this week said methane hydrate deposits around the world represent a potentially enormous energy resource, “possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels”.
US researchers said this week’s production test carries more urgency for the Japanese because of their dependence on imports.
Tim Collett, research geologist with the US Geological Survey in Denver, said natural gas prices in Japan now are the equivalent of $18/MMBtu, or almost five times higher than the cost of natural gas in the US.
“If I’m sitting in West Texas or Denver, or anywhere in the US with all our abundant oil and gas resources, this issue looks a lot different than if I’m sitting in Tokyo,” Collett said. “It all depends on what your motivations are.”
For the Japanese, the economic motivations were apparent in the release by the state-run Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC), which said hydrate deposits in the Eastern Nankai Trough are equal to 11 years' worth of LNG imports to Japan.
Another Japanese authority - the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology - has estimated that there are 100 years’ worth of natural gas for that country in its offshore hydrate deposits.
Collett said all indications are that the Japanese will build rigs resembling existing offshore oil and gas platforms when they begin commercial production of methane hydrates at some point in 2016-2018, as the JOGMEC release stated.
Boswell said he sees no reason to doubt the Japanese time estimates. Methane hydrate production for the US is not nearly as urgent, Boswell said, considering energy supplies that have been found through shale drilling.
He said: “It is reasonable to assume that US timelines would be longer, given the current state of gas supply. But it’s also easy to underestimate technology. Look at where shale was 10 years ago.”
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