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Methane Hydrate Research and Development (1-25-05)

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Methane hydrates, a frozen mixture of methane and water, have gained notice as a possible energy source and a potential hazard. Scientists have known of gas hydrates since the early 1800's from experiments with water gas mixtures, but naturally forming methane hydrates were not discovered until the 1960's when scientists and engineers working on the Siberian gas field Messoyakha discovered naturally forming "solid natural gas" -- methane hydrate -- in the subsurface sediments. This finding, plus an additional discovery on Alaska's North Slope, led geologists to search for other methane hydrate deposits around the world. During the 1990's, the enormous potential of methane hydrates was realized as estimates of reserves averaged around 200 million trillion cubic feet in the U.S., compared with 1400 trillion cubic feet of other sources of natural gas. Federal efforts to lead and support research and development of methane hydrates resulted in the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000. Under the Act, the Department of Energy is coordinating a national effort of industry and federal agencies to understand the role of methane hydrates in the environment, explore possible solutions to methane hydrate hazards, and determine their potential as an energy source.

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At standard temperatures and pressures, methane -- the main component of natural gas -- is a gaseous hydrocarbon. Under conditions of relatively high pressure and low temperature, such as those on the continental slope and in permafrost areas, methane is found as a crystalline solid encased within an ice-cage matrix -- a substance called methane hydrate. When liberated from this condensed structure, the volume of methane gas is 160 times greater than that of the hydrate form, making it an enormous resource potential. Estimates on the amount of methane hydrates contained on and offshore of the U.S. vary widely, but it is expected that if 1 percent of methane hydrate deposits were technically and economically recoverable, the U.S. could more than double its domestic natural gas resource base. Also, a 50 by 150 kilometer area off the coast of North and South Carolina might contain enough methane to meet U.S. demand for the next 70 years.

After their discovery in nature in the 1960's, hydrates were mostly viewed as an academic curiosity. But as oil and gas production moved into deeper waters, interest shifted to hydrates not only as a possible resource, but also as a potential hazard. As hydrate crystals often cement otherwise unconsolidated sands, their destabilization has been responsible for the disappearance of whole rigs from the induced liquefaction of sediment into which they were secured. Also, methane hydrates have caused massive submarine landslides. The release of large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas ten times more effective than water vapor and carbon dioxide, also has environmental implications. The large-scale release of methane from hydrates has been invoked as a means to explain some periods of climate warming since the Last Glacial Maximum, when sea-level changes moved methane hydrates on the sea floor out of a field of stable pressure.

A hydrate-containing drill core recovered on a 1981 National Science Foundation-sponsored drilling program led to federal efforts to further study methane hydrates. From 1982 to 1992 the Department of Energy (DOE) spent approximately $8 million on investigations seeking to build a basic scientific foundation on the properties and locations of methane hydrates. The studies ceased as R&D priorities shifted to near-term and immediate exploration and production.

In hopes of curbing CO2 emission, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended in a 1997 report that DOE begin a major initiative to establish a collaborative multi-agency and industry group to evaluate the production potential of methane hydrates in U.S. coastal waters and worldwide. Subsequently, DOE once again began providing resources to gas hydrate R&D programs. In 1998, two workshops under the coordination of the DOE lead to the report A Strategy for Methane Hydrate Research and Development, which was followed by the 1999 National Methane Hydrate Multi-year R&D Program Plan.

Despite the renewed interest and increased support, the complicated issues and technical challenges surrounding methane hydrate exploitation resulted in duplicate efforts and delayed results. Consequently, the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000, which placed the 1997 recommendations into law, established the DOE as the lead agency in forming a nationally coordinated research program. The resulting National Methane Hydrate R&D Program awards grants and contracts through a competitive merit-based process. The program is led by the DOE but also includes the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the National Science Foundation. Current research efforts are focused on mitigating potential hazards that hydrates pose to ongoing deep-water oil and gas drilling, determining if there is a possible role for hydrates in the nation's long-term energy needs, and re-evaluating the current understanding of natural processes -- such as global climate change and evolution of the sea floor -- that may influence future policies. Progress of the research program will be evaluated by the National Research Council by September 30, 2004.

In June 2004, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) introduced H.R. 4515, which would provide energy companies incentives to produce natural gas from methane hydrate resources in certain areas. The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy had estimated that the world's methane gas hydrate accumulations contain significantly more gas than all other conventional natural gas resources combined. These accumulations of densely packed gases inside a crystal structure occur in Arctic regions and in deep sea sediments. The technology to exploit this resource has not been developed, although the bill provides incentive for companies that develop technologies and begin extraction before the year 2018. The bill was referred to the House Energy and Minerals Subcommittee where it has stayed ever since.

For additional information on methane hydrates and current research, see the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory web site

Sources: National Energy Technology Laboratory, Greenwire, Thomas, Library of Congress.

Contributed by David Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern

Background section includes material from AGI's Methane Hydrate Research and Development page for the 108th Congress.

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

Last updated on January 25, 2005.

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