Japan and China Mine Risky ‘Flammable Ice’ From Seafloor

Japan and China, in independent efforts, have successfully mined methane hydrates—so-called “flammable ice”—from the seafloor, moving them one step closer to commercial production of a huge new source of combustible gas.

The extraction of methane hydrates has the potential provide the world with a lower-carbon source of fuel (relative to more intensive sources like coal). But if mined improperly, it could unleash a torrent of methane into the atmosphere, a dire scenario given that methane is about 30-times more potent as a greenhouse gas.

Methane hydrates are pockets of methane gas trapped within ice crystals.

The Associated Press has more:

If methane hydrate leaks during the extraction process, it can increase greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel also could displace renewables such as solar and wind power, said David Sandalow, a former senior official with the U.S. State Department now at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

However, if it can be used without leaking, it has the potential to replace dirtier coal in the power sector.

“The climate implications of producing natural gas hydrates are complicated. There are potential benefits, but substantial risks,” Sandalow said.

The world’s seabeds are littered with deposits of methane hydrates, which consists of methane gas trapped in crystalline cages of ice. The stuff is incredibly energy dense; just one cubic foot contains 160 cubic feet of methane, or about ten-times more than what’s typically found in shale.

Japan continues to test their seafloor-mining techniques off their central coast, while China performed their seven-day experimental extraction about 190 miles south of Hong Kong in the South China Sea. Both countries hope to use the reserves to bolster their domestic energy supplies. In the case of China, the country’s use of natural gas far exceeds its domestic production, while the island nation of Japan has a paucity of domestic fossil fuel reserves.