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Summary of Methane Hydrate Research and Development Hearings (8-3-99)

Hearing on H.R. 1753, the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 1999
Resources Committee
Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources
The U.S. House of Representatives
May 25, 1999

Members Present
Barbara Cubin, subcommittee chair (R-WY)
Robert Underwood (D-Del.-GU)
Greg Walden (R-OR)

Opening Statements
The hearing was opened by the chairman with some brief background towards methane hydrates (see the AGI web page for a more in-depth discussion) and an explanation that the subcommittee's interest stems from "the future potential for leasing of gas hydrates on federal mineral estate under the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act and onshore in Alaska under the Mineral Leasing Act."  Cubin also pointed out that passage of this bill would authorize federal research and development participation through the United States Geological Survey (USGS), an agency under their jurisdiction.  Ranking Member Underwood reiterated much of the background on methane hydrates and added some comments on hazards that methane hydrates could potentially pose, both to the environment through increased greenhouse gas emissions and to deep sea drilling rigs situated above shifting hydrate deposits.

Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA) was the first witness to address the subcommittee.  Doyle is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1753 and serves on the House Science committee, which shares jurisdiction over these bills.  Doyle was making himself available to answer any questions specific to his legislation.

Panel 1
Mr. Robert S. Kripowicz, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy,
    U.S. Department of Energy
Dr. Timothy S. Collett, Research Geologist, USGS, Department of the Interior
Dr. Bilal U. Haq, Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation

Kripowicz led off the first panel of witnesses with a report on the Department of Energy's (DOE) views on the potential of methane hydrates as a future energy source and DOE's role in their development.  With estimates of worldwide methane hydrate reserves reaching 400 million trillion cubic feet, hydrates form a huge potential energy reserve.  With natural gas consumption expected to rise, interest in these reserves is increasing.  Kripowicz states, however, "Today, the potential to extract commercially relevant quantities of natural gas from hydrates is speculative at best."  He continued, outlining the role of federal research dollars, "With no immediate economic payoff, the private sector is not vigorously pursuing research that could make methane hydrates technically and economically viable.  Therefore, federal R&D is the primary way the United States can begin exploring the future viability of a high-risk resource whose long-range possibilities might one day dramatically change the world's energy portfolio."  Kripowicz laid out the four primary goals of the DOE's methane hydrate research program:  resource characterization; production; role in the global carbon cycle; safety and sea floor stability.  DOE supports both the House and the Senate versions of these bills.

Timothy Collett from the USGS submitted his testimony, covering much of the same ground.  His main points were: There is a huge volume of natural gas tied up in hydrates;  the production of these hydrates may be possible;  hydrates pose a potential natural hazard threat associated with sealer instability and release of methane to the oceans and atmosphere; disturbing hydrate deposits during drilling could pose a threat to drilling rigs.  These all form the basis for the USGS belief that further study of hydrates is important.

Haq, from the Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation, emphasized some of the potential hazards of hydrates, particularly their potential to have played a role in past climate change events.  Small changes in climate could change conditions enough such as to release the large amounts of methane, currently in the form of hydrate, as gas into the atmosphere.  Haq outlined a long list of research needs, ranging again from production of hydrate as an energy source to understanding how hydrates affect slope stability.

Once the floor was opened to questions, Walden first wanted assurances that, given the multi-disciplinary, inter-agency approach to federal research of methane hydrates, all groups involved would be able to work with one another in a reasonable manner.  Kripowicz responded by explaining that DOE has all ready been working with other agencies on this topic and that there are plans to form a steering committee made up of members from the concerned government programs, academia, and the petroleum industry.  This committee will "monitor program progress, assure interagency coordination, and coordinate international exchanges."  Other questions came from Underwood and again from Walden, establishing that this was a long-term program, with no expectations of having hydrate production any earlier than 2010, as well as the fact that very little funding from industry is expected until hydrates are a demonstrable resource.  All parties also agreed that Alaska's North Slope was the most likely candidate for initial research because of its relative access ease (when compared to the deep-water Gulf of Mexico) and in-place infrastructure.

Panel 2
Dr. Robert Trent, Dean, School of Mineral Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Dr. Robert Woolsey, Director, Center for Marine Resources and Environmental Technology,
    Continental Shelf Division, University of Mississippi
Dr. Michael Cruickshank, Director, Ocean Basins Division, Center for Marine Resources and
    Environmental Technology, University of Hawaii

The second panel was made up of representatives from academic groups doing research in the three main geographic provinces of suspected methane hydrate deposits in the U.S.:  Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Basin and Rim.  Trent spoke first and outlined the potential in Alaska, reiterating that on the North Slope the infrastructure is already in place and the costs of developing hydrate technology on land are far less than developing them in deep water.  He also mentioned the possibility of hydrates becoming a valuable source of energy for remote Alaskan villages.

Woolsey spoke next, acknowledging that we are still a long ways off from producing hydrates as a resource but should be concerned about their role in sea floor stability today.  Industry has started moving into deeper and deeper water in the Gulf of Mexico, and shallow water flows (thought to possibly be associated with the dissociation of gas hydrates) have been cited by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists as the "greatest obstacle to deep water drilling worldwide."  Woolsey explained that the Center for Marine Resources and Environmental Technology (CMRET), Continental Shelf Division, currently has two principal projects going.  The first is developing high resolution survey techniques to detect gas hydrate occurrences offshore, and the second is the deployment of deep water, multisensor monitoring stations to watch the physical and chemical changes around a hydrate mound in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Cruickshank was the final witness of the day and explained the cooperative research that the CMRET's Ocean Basin Division has planned.  They propose to look at the influence of "biotic and abiotic geochemical cycles in ocean sediments" on gas hydrates and how this affects variations in the amount of methane contained in hydrates from different locations.  The hope is to "understand the processes that control the formation, stability, and fate of methane hydrates in the ocean."

Walden had a number of questions for the panelists, again establishing that Alaska was the cheapest and simplest area in which to start research.  When asked how soon before an operational pilot could be expected in the Gulf of Mexico, Woolsey responded that much of the infrastructure is also in place in the Gulf, but the focus of current research is being directed towards the hazards that hydrates pose to deep water drilling rigs.

Sources:  Hearing Testimony

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

Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Scott Broadwell

Last updated July 1, 1999

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