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Update on Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act (5-8-00)

Methane hydrates, a mixture of methane and water that is frozen into an ice, have gained notice in the general public as a possible energy source and also as a potential hazard.  Scientists have known of methane hydrates for nearly a century from natural gas pipelines that extended into colder climates -- these hydrates would often form in the pipelines well above the temperature of normal ice and plug the flow of gas.  Not until 1964, when scientists and engineers were working on the Siberian gas field named Messoyakha, did they discover natural forming "solid gas" (methane hydrates).  This finding led to geologists searching for other methane hydrate deposits around the world.  During the mid-1990s, the US Geological Survey and others released reports estimating the natural gas potential of methane hydrates as close to 400 million trillion cubic feet -- a staggering figure compared to the 5,000 trillion cubic feet that make up the world's currently known gas reserves.  There still remains several questions about the feasibility of using methane hydrates as an energy source and the potential hazards of these deposits of greenhouse gases on the continental shelves.  During the 105th Congress, legislation was introduced to establish an interagency methane hydrate research program, but Congress adjourned before the bill passed both chambers.  Legislation on methane research was reintroduced during the 106th Congress.

Most Recent Action
On May 4th, President Clinton signed the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act, H.R. 1753, into law (P. Law No: 106-193).  Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), sponsor of the bill, in a press release praised the passage of the bill, which would require the Department of Energy to establish a federal research and development program.  The research program would work to identify the concentration of these deposits as well as proving the technological feasibility and safety of their production.  Previously, the House and Senate had passed the bill back in November 1999, but there were differences between the two chambers that were worked out once Congress returned from the end of the year recess.  H.R. 1753 passed both chambers by unanimous consent before being cleared for presidential approval.

Previous Action in the 106th Congress
Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced S. 330, the Methane Hydrate Research Development Act of 1999, on January 28, 1999, when it was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  The bill aims to "promote the research, identification, assessment, exploration, and development of methane hydrate resources."   According to the press release on the bill, "It would direct the Department of Energy to conduct research and development in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, National Science Foundation, and the Naval Research Laboratory."  S. 330 is identical to legislation that Akaka introduced during the last Congress -- more information on activities during the 105th Congress is available on the AGI Summary on the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act.  In February 1999, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee released their report (S. Rpt. 106-33) on the bill without holding any hearings.  The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent on April 19, 1999 and sent to the House for consideration.

On May 11, 1999, Representative Michael Doyle (D-PA) introduced H.R. 1753, a companion bill to S. 330, when it was referred to the House Science Committee and the House Committee on Resources. The following day, the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment held a hearing on S. 330.  The opening statement of Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA), full written testimony of the panelists, a hearing charter, and a webcast of the hearing is available from the House Science Committee hearings website.

On May 25, 1999, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on both H.R. 1753 and S. 330.  Chairwoman Barbara Cubin (R-WY) said in her opening statement: "Much of this [methane hydrate] resource lies at the edge of the outer continental shelf and slope in deep water, but significant quantities appear to exist within permafrost regions at depths as shallow as 200 meters. However, gas hydrates are merely resources, not reserves, because their exploitation is sub-economic at this time."  A complete summary of the hearing is available at the AGI Summary of Methane Hydrate Research and Development Hearings.   The complete text of the panelists and opening statements are also available at the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing website.  The full House Committee on Resources passed H.R. 1753 by voice vote at a June 30, 1999 business session.

In October 1999, the House Science Committee released their report (H. Rpt. 106-377, Part I) and the House Resources Committee released their report (H. Rpt. 106-377, Part II) on H.R. 1753.  During discussion of the bill before the October 1999 House vote, Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) recognized the contributions of 1998-1999 AGI Congressional Science Fellow David Wunsch, who worked for her on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, in the development of H.R. 1753. Her remarks are included in the Congressional Record.  The House passed H.R. 1753 by voice vote.

At the end of 1999, the House and the Senate met in conference to smooth out differences between the two bills.  The final version, which maintained the H.R. 1753 number, would authorize the Secretary of Energy to award grants or contracts to conduct gas hydrate research and development, require a competitive merit-review process for grants, limit administrative expenses to not more than five percent, and require a National Research Council report of the program's progress and recommendations for future research needs.  The conference version was cleared by both chambers at the beginning of April and sent to the White House for presidential approval.

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 power plant 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 liquefaction 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, University of Mississippi, and Colorado School of Mines) 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.

Related Links
Science News
Department of Energy
Gas Research Institute
DOE Methane Hydrate Plan
USGS Gas Hydrates Study website
Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere.  The end of cheap oil. Scientific American.  March 1998.
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.

Sources: Hearing Testimony, the Library of Congress website Thomas, Environmental and Energy Study Institute, Science News, Department of Energy, Gas Research Institute, the USGS, EENews, Congressional Research Service Issue Brief on Methane Hydrates (RS20050), and Greenwire.

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

Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Interns Joy Roth and Scott Broadwell; Kasey Shewey White and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Program; and AGI/AAPG Geoscience Policy Intern Alison Alcott

Posted July 1, 1999; Last updated May 8, 2000

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