Release of Global Outlook on Methane Hydrates
16th of March, 2015
Gas Hydrates and the Evolving Global Energy Mix
March 16, 2015
Gas hydrates are ice-like deposits of hydrocarbons rarely glimpsed by human eyes, and are widespread in certain marine and permafrost settings around the earth. Recently, there are being investigated by some as a potential source of unconventional natural gas. These deposits are the subject of a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with international scientific institutions from the US. Canada, Norway, India, Japan, South Korea and Germany. Frozen Heat: A Global Outlook on Methane Hydrates reviews the science and history of gas hydrates, evaluates the current state of research and explores the potential impacts of gas hydrates on the future global energy mix. By producing this report, UNEP continues to fulfill its long standing obligation and mandate of making the latest science and knowledge related to emerging environmental issues available to policy/decision makers. UNEP’s work on this report is not an encouragement or promotion of the development and use of gas hydrates as an energy source but rather a desire to inform on the various perspectives that should be considered in relation to this complex topic.
“Gas hydrates” is the most commonly used term to describe combinations of methane and water that form naturally and in great quantities in geologic environments where there are low temperatures and relatively high pressures such as in deep water marine environments or in association with permafrost. These formations have historically been difficult to study, because of their remote locations and also because gas hydrates dissociate, or break apart, at the conditions found on the earth’s surface.
Growing energy demands have recently increased interest in the potentially immense quantity of methane—a fossil fuel emitting up to 40 per cent less carbon dioxide when combusted than coal and about 20 per cent less than oil— that is held in gas hydrates. In addition, the role of gas hydrate dissociation as a potential feedback mechanism to ongoing climate change is attracting continued attention. Certain countries also see gas hydrate resources as a valuable energy source that could replace their dependence on foreign imports and dirtier hydrocarbons.
While the existence of methane in gas hydrate form does not necessarily make it a viable energy source, the total amount of methane contained in the world’s gas hydrates is equivalent to 200 to 2,200 times the current annual global energy consumption from all sources. It also suggests that the technologies that will be used to produce gas hydrates are already being employed in the oil and gas industry.
The report stresses the need for nations and communities to develop a strong foundation in science that will provide a portfolio of options for assessing and mitigating potential development impacts and meeting development needs equitably and sustainably. It points out that a ‘green’ approach provides a strategic and integrated framework for considering how a variety of energy development options can be balanced and managed enabling a sustainable and resilient economy.
Impact on the Future Energy Mix
Many earlier assessments focused on quantifying in-place resources, with little attention paid to how much methane might ultimately be recoverable. The first efforts to assess the practical resource potential of gas hydrates are now appearing, and results from scientific production tests over the past five years have been encouraging. Numerical simulations suggest that sustained gas production can be achieved using relatively conventional hydrocarbon production techniques. Confirmation from long-term industrial production tests are still required, however signs suggest that gas hydrates represent substantial, widespread, recoverable natural gas resources.
Even if no more than a small subset of the global resource is accessible through existing technologies, that portion still represents a very large quantity of gas. The accessible subset could include highly concentrated gas hydrate accumulations in locations where conventional hydrocarbon production is already planned or underway, and in areas with strong societal motivations for developing domestic energy resources. However, because gas hydrates occur in remote frontier marine and permafrost settings, important considerations remain related to the development of infrastructure to collect and distribute the gas once it is produced.
The report suggests that gas hydrates would most likely be tapped as a methane resource using conventional oil and gas production techniques already employed around the world. As such, future development of gas hydrate deposits would benefit from regulations and procedures for environmental oversight that are already well established. Among the topics that require further study include 1) potential ground subsidence associated with production and 2) disposal of produced water. As with any oil and gas activity in a frontier setting, each proposed development must also consider disruption of sensitive ecosystems and the cumulative impact of development on the global climate system.
The report also reviews methane hydrates occurring in nature, including their possible role influencing global climate change. A concern is that methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a radiative forcing value of about 0.5 watts per square metres — a measure of how it changes the earth’s balance between incoming and lost solar energy — second only to the 1.66 watts per square metre for carbon dioxide.
According to the report, establishing the importance of methane from gas hydrates in ongoing and future climate change is an important research topic. There is considerable uncertainty about the total amount of methane involved, as well as the timing and nature of gas hydrates’ response to future change.
Economic and Social Concerns
The report argues that the contribution of gas hydrates to social and development goals will depend on a region’s, a nation’s, and/or a community’s state of development, its gas hydrate endowment, and other living, non-living, and human capital endowments.
It also emphasizes that each geographic region should determine where gas hydrates fit in a larger development framework and whether extraction, processing and marketing of natural gas from gas hydrates provides a net advance in achieving its goals or if investments in alternative technologies and/or alternative sources of revenue.
The full report can be downloaded here: