American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act (11-24-98)

In November 1997, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced S.1418, a bill to "promote the research, identification, assessment, exploration, and development of methane hydrate resources, and for other purposes." The bill would authorize funding to provide for the advancement of technology required to bring methane hydrates online by the year 2015. Co-sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), and Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), the bill was the subject of a hearing on May 21, 1998 by the Senate Subcommittee on Energy Research and Development. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed it the following month, and the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent on July 17th. It was referred jointly to the House Science and Resources Committees. The Science Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill on September 15th, but the bill did not make any further progress during the 105th Congress. Background information as well as a summary on  research to presentcurrent status of legislation, and avenues of input for geoscientists are contained below.

Current Status
Refined estimates from a recent  academic research cruise indicate that there may be as much as 200,000 trillion cubic feet of gas (Tcf) in reserves under the jurisdiction of the United States.  This untapped source of hydrocarbons has the potential to help secure this country's energy needs for years to come.  Considering current low oil prices, adequate supply of oil and natural gas, and the great leaps in technology needed to produce methane hydrates, however, the oil industry is not likely to be financially supportive of methane hydrate research in the near future.  The bill may also may face opposition from environmentalists concerned with the unintentional release of methane gas into the atmosphere which would contribute to global warming.

Under S.1418, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Natural Gas and Petroleum Technology would lead a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and the DOE Office of Energy Research and Federal Energy Technology Center (FETC).  Industry would be represented by the Natural Gas Supply Association and the Gas Research Institute.  Sources on Capitol Hill predict that methane hydrate legislation may emerge from the House Science Committee sometime in September.  A bill from that committee would likely place methane hydrate research and development (R&D) under the aegis of the National Ocean Partnership Program (NOPP) operated by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE).  These groups were established by Congress in 1996 to manage interagency projects, such as a methane hydrate research and development program.  If the bill has NOPP in control the purse strings, the funding is much more likely to get to academia and the other members of NOPP not mentioned in the Senate bill such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Mineral Management Service.

If S.1418 is signed into law, the FETC will resume work in methane hydrate research that originally began in 1982 and was later discontinued when the government changed focus from a long-term R&D strategy to one of exploration and production research that could be applied on a much shorter timescale.  Under the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act, the FETC would develop partnerships to "undertake programs to develop basic information necessary for promoting long-term interest in methane hydrate resources as an energy source".  By working with and funding academic and industry research, the following goals would be addressed by this project:

S.1418 is in line with several other recent federal policy documents recommending methane hydrate R&D. This bill comes after the DOE Comprehensive National Energy Strategy group proposed a methane hydrate program as part of the effort to expand future energy choices.  Also, last year the Energy Research and Development Panel of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that the DOE Office of Fossil Energy expend $44 million over five years for methane hydrate R&D.  In DOE's April 1998  hydrate plan, they link proposed funding amounts with achievable goal deadlines.  DOE attaches commercial methane hydrate production by the year 2010 to a pricetag of $20 million per year.  Production is proposed to be possible in 20 years with $10 million expended per year.  Without global climate or seafloor stability studies, the price of $5 million per year could buy commercial production in 25 years.  The report accompanying S.1418 after it came out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee,  Senate report 105-248, puts funding at $45 million to be spread out over the next five years. Three amendments were included in S.1418 before it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  One amendment includes the National Science Foundation as an agency that will help "design and implement" the program.  Another amendment changes the Mining and Mineral Policy Act of 1970 to include methane hydrate as a resource.

At standard temperatures and pressures, methane is a gaseous hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas.  Under conditions of relatively high pressure and low temperature (common in areas of permafrost and on the continental slope) methane can be found as a crystalline solid encased within an ice structure.  When liberated from the condensed structure, the volume of methane gas is 160 times greater than that of the hydrate form.  Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it contributes less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and is therefore considered less damaging to the environment. As a consequence, greater utilization of natural gas could help the U.S. to meet the guidelines established in the Kyoto Protocol.  Moreover, natural gas proponents argue that its development into alternative fuels for transportation could help our country decrease its dependence on imported petroleum - the U.S. now imports 53% of its oil.  Petroleum companies have newly emerging capabilities to convert methane gas to liquid hydrocarbons that can be used for powerplant energy generation, jet fuel, and kerosene.  Because it has low concentrations of aromatics and no sulfur, this methane-derived liquid hydrocarbon can be mixed with the diesel from crude oil to produce a cleaner-burning, more efficient transportation fuel.

There are technological problems that must be addressed before methane hydrate can be economically and safely extracted.   In its natural state below permafrost or under the seafloor, methane hydrate is a solid and cannot flow up the drill stem.  Recovery methods, such as steam flooding and depressurization are centered around causing the methane to sublimate, which enables production as a gas.  However, expansion associated with the phase change of methane hydrate to methane gas has historically been a hazard to oil exploration and production.  For instance, the escape of methane gas to shallow depths has been responsible for the disappearance of whole rigs from the induced liquifaction of sediment into which they were secured.  Methane hydrates are also thought to be responsible for some massive submarine landslides.

  Another concern about producing methane hydrate is the greenhouse effect of methane gas released into the atmosphere.  Methane is ten times more effective at insulating the planet than both water vapor and carbon dioxide, the two most abundant greenhouse gases.  Along that same vein, the destabilization of methane has been invoked as a means to explain some recent (on a geological timescale) periods of climate warming since the Last Glacial Maximum, when changes in sea level move the methane hydrates on the sea floor out of the pressure regime in which it is stable as a solid.  Such changes would cause it to become a gas, allowing escape to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

Research to Present
The  USGS and a number of public and private universities ( University of North Carolina, Colorado School of MinesUniversity of Mississippi) have continued with research despite the cut to DOE methane hydrate funding.  Subsidized by an international consortium supported by the National Science Foundation, the Ocean Drilling Program dedicated a  research cruise to the investigation of methane hydrates.  This research cruise increased the understanding of methane hydrates, hydrate-bearing sediments, and their source and migration; allowed for better estimates of reserves; examined the role of methane in both slope instability and the global carbon budget; linked well-log indicators with the sediment's physical properties; and further refined detection methods that will aid in reservoir delineation.

A gas well in northern West Siberia may have been tapping into methane hydrates throughout its production history.  This rejuvenation of the Messoyakha field lends insight into how these hydrates may be produced.  By targeting the gas trapped under hydrates, the pressure of the hydrate itself changes, allowing for the phase change necessary to be produced.  The hydrate/gas contact is easily imaged on seismic due to the low velocity of gas versus the high acoustic impedance of hydrates. Models of steam or hot water injection show that these methods may be technically feasible, yet inefficient and costly.  A cooperative project between Japan's national oil company, the USGS, and the Geological Survey of Canada has planned to drill a methane hydrate test well in the Mackenzie Delta, northern Canada.  Other methane hydrate projects are coming out of India.

Research into methane hydrate is currently limited in scale and breadth.  Because there is no immediate gain from gas hydrate research and development, most petroleum companies invest their R&D money on technology that better exploits currently producing resources.  In hearing testimony, a DOE official stated that this is the reason why the federal government should fund the research needed to produce methane hydrates.  In an August 1997 AAPG Bulletin article, Jack Edwards of the Energy and Minerals Applied Research Center of the University of Colorado predicts that crude oil production will not peak until 2020 and conventional oil production will cease in 2090.  Others within industry think that peak production will not be reached until 2040.  Considering both the remaining oil reserves and the amount of natural gas from coal-bed methane, the industry does not have much incentive to exploit methane hydrates.  Furthermore, in light of today's oil prices, it is not economic for industry to develop the new technology necessary to extract these resources.  Additionally, many safety and technology issues need to be resolved before methane hydrates can be produced.  If the goals established in this bill are relying on significant financial "partnership" or contribution from the industry to be accomplished, these goals may not be met.

In the  DOE's Methane Hydrates Program plan, they state that methane hydrate research "has no immediate economic payoff to the private sector.  Federal R&D is the only way this type of research can be done in the U.S."  Mentioning that the industry has no economic interest in methane hydrate research, however, goes against the statement of Robert Kripowicz (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, DOE) quoted in the  committee report "We expect to see substantial industry cost-sharing...."  For the reasons stated above, industry may be reluctant to contribute resources to the public-private partnerships proposed by this bill.  They may, however, be willing to contribute access to seismic data and rig time for coring.

Pending Legislation/Potential for Geoscientist Input
 Hill sources indicate that a methane hydrate bill is currently being written in the House.  For geoscientists' to have input with regard to the House bill, the following people should be contacted:

Bill Testerman, policy director for the House Science committee 202-225-5967
Steve Eule, staff director for the subcommittee on Basic Research (Majority staff) 202-225-9662
Harlan Watson, staff director for the subcommittee on Energy and Environment 202-225-9816
Larry Hart, staff member for the subcommittee on Energy and Environment 202-225-7281

Sources and Related Links
 Ocean Drilling Program
 Science News
Senate hearings
 Department of Energy
 Gas Technology Institute
Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere.  The end of cheap oil.  Scientific American.  March 1998.
 DOE April 1998 Methane Hydrate Plan
Edwards, John D.  Crude oil and alternate energy production forecasts for the twenty-first century:  The end of the hydrocarbon era.  AAPG Bulletin.  v.81(8):1292-1305.
Collett, Timothy and Kuuskraa, Vello.  Hydrates contain vast store of world gas resources.  Oil & Gas Journal. v.96(19):90-95.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Joy Roth, AGI Government Affairs Intern
Posted July 27, 1998; Last updated November 24, 1998

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