It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Avoiding the Clathrate Echo

I've been talking about the ethics of leaving the world in a condition where a major clathrate release in the rather distant future (order thousands of years) would be more likely. Others have suggested that the human influence is so strong that predicting that far would be futile. Perhaps we'll be smart enough to be able to overcome this problem easily. Perhaps we'll be stupid enough that we won't be here, and we can let the rats and roaches fight it out...

Well, one way to avoid the release of clathrates in the distant future, saddling our distant descendants with a rerun of the global warming episode, would be to dig em all up now. Indeed, I am invited to a talk this week:
Gas hydrate research in India – a synoptic view

The world is searching for new and alternate energy resources due to the manifold increase in consumption of fossil fuels. Methane gas hydrates are perceived to be the future alternate energy resource. Hence, considerable interest has been generated in the field of research and technology development of these deposits world over. In order to meet the India’s energy demand, Indian National Gas Hydrate program (NGHP) was launched in 1996. NGHP is a consortium of national E&P companies and national labs steered and guided by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbon (DGH). A separate R&D intense programme on exploration and technology development on exploitation of gas hydrates has been launched by Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India with national labs as members.
The occurrence of gas hydrates in the Indian continental margins has been inferred from the presence of Bottom Simulating Reflectors (BSRs) as observed in the multi-channel seismic data. Total prognosticated gas resource from the gas hydrates in Indian offshore area is placed at around 1894 trillion cubic meters, which is almost a few hundred times the conventional natural gas resource established in the country.

... The drilling results confirm the presence of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari (KG), Mahanadi and Andaman offshore basins. Krishna-Godavari basin shows a fracture-dominated massive gas hydrate deposit.
Great news, huh? You'll notice that climate is not a primary concern among solid earth geophysicists.

Seriously, unless most of the clathrates are recoverable, this is the worst of both worlds. It makes the potential warming more severe while still leaving the gun loaded for a burst of warming in some future we can't envision.

We need to find alternatives to fossil sources and/or sequestration strategies. Unfortunately, the people who look for fuels are talented and numerous and have little need of public funding and all the productivity overhead that comes with it.

14 comments:

bernie said...

Michael:
How exactly do they use the Clathrate to generate energy and what is net impact on emissions and the environment of this fuel compared to other fossil fuels?

Michael Tobis said...

Methane clathrate looks like ice; in fact it is some sort of odd combination of water ice and methane. It is essentially a natural gas deposit. Leaving aside the energy cost of recovering it, it has the same greenhouse properties as any other natural gas deposit: i.e., a little better than petroleum if burned, much worse than petroleum if leaked unburned.

If 5% of the natural gas leaks in the recovery process then it is about as bad as coal if I recall correctly.

I don't know exactly how they propose to recover it. In principle, if you go down in a diving suit, chop some of it out of the sea floor, and put it in a sealed box, when you get to surface pressure you'll have a box of icewater and methane.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, of course if the box is sealed it won't get to surface pressure by itself. duh...

David B. Benson said...

Actually the clathrates are semi-stable at STP. Oceanogrpahers have dredged these up and there are videos of the breaded fellow on the research ship holding a chunk in his (gloved) hand and then lighting it with a BIC. The fumes coming off are natural gas and burn rather nicely.

Michael Tobis said...

Oceanographers are an odd lot. Was he breaded because he was going to be flambeed over burning ice and served to the rest of the crew?

Steven said...

What is the carbon-hydrogen ratio here compared to petroleum?

Is this stuff the same makeup as "natural gas" or is it slightly different? Is this just plain old vanilla natural gas trapped in a matrix?

If we were to substitute some amount X, of higher carbon petroleum with the equivalent energy producing amount of this clathrate methane, would we be producing energy with a lower carbon release? (assuming we have the leakage under control)

Any math on how much less carbon, therefore how much substitution would do how much good? (30% less?)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Michael Tobis said...

"just plain old vanilla natural gas trapped in a matrix?"

yep. exactly.

"would we be producing energy with a lower carbon release? (assuming we have the leakage under control)"

yep. And lots of it. Byebye energy shortages. Hello global warming. Big time.

It's not a matter of substitution, though. If we meet global demand through fossil fuels without getting sequestration online we are collectively committing about as unethical an act as is imaginable, though each of us can pretty much blame everybody else.

Steven said...

I'm not sure I understand your conclusion. You're saying substitution to a lower carbon ratio source = "hello global warming bigtime".

I'm not weighing the utopian. I'd like to get our energy from magical unicorns who don't fart.

Between two options that seem to be on the existing table, and the table horizon, (Q#1.) is methane clathrate (at a lower carbon ratio) *BETTER*, not perfect?

And as to the point two, (Q#2.) if we extract and burn it, isn't that *BETTER* than letting it thaw and go straight to the atmosphere? (again, assuming direct leakage is controlled)

Michael Tobis said...

Steven, I see your point, but no.

We can't bring new fossil fuel sources online until the sequestration problem is solved.

We need to find no-net-carbon solutions, not slightly-less-carbon solutions available in larger quantities. If the clathrate recovery problem is solved and the sequestration problem isn't, we will not just be replacing the missing petroleum, we will be continuing the rapid growth in emissions.

What we need is not to stabilize emissions. Stable emissions means a constantly growing greenhouse forcing. We need to eliminate all or almost all net emissions.

On your second point, I suppose that it is fair to say that emitting that carbon as CO2 is better than emitting it as methane. On the other hand, if we stop net emissions soon enough then the remaining ocean clathrates won't ever escape.

Michael Tobis said...

Steven, I see your point, but no.

We can't bring new fossil fuel sources online until the sequestration problem is solved.

We need to find no-net-carbon solutions, not slightly-less-carbon solutions available in larger quantities. If the clathrate recovery problem is solved and the sequestration problem isn't, we will not just be replacing the missing petroleum, we will be continuing the rapid growth in emissions.

What we need is not to stabilize emissions. Stable emissions means a constantly growing greenhouse forcing. We need to eliminate all or almost all net emissions.

On your second point, I suppose that it is fair to say that emitting that carbon as CO2 is better than emitting it as methane. On the other hand, if we stop net emissions soon enough then the remaining ocean clathrates won't ever escape.

Steven said...

MT: I'm mostly posting this so you'll note that you have a repeat.

But, Re: I wasn't so much making a point as just asking for clarification.

About all manner of things, those who know me are very familiar with two frequent quotes:
"We can only choose from real options that are on the table"

And

"We should always work to put as many new and beneficial options on the table as possible".

I don't believe a lack of utopian options is an excuse to do nothing, but I do recgnize the importance of differentiating always between better and worse. To be a foot-stamper and say neither option is better because I want a different option is just as bad.

Following your point, I see what you mean in rough numbers, if we save helf the emissions, but double the use, we get the same effect.

Although- the other things that come about during that process might be worth it. For instance, if China and India can go through a leapfrog development advance with a lower-carbon ratio than doing the same with oil, then the advances that buys us might pay off. I.e. the new engineers and chemists from a newly wealthy society will add more problem solvers to the pool.

Michael Tobis said...

Sometimes you have to take options off the table, is all.

Chuck said...

I'm with Steve- having a billion people switch from coal to natural gas seems like a good start- especially in a country with no plans to institute carbon targets.

Dennis Denuto said...

Dig 'em up?

Re your question on recovery: most national programs pursuing gas hydrate (US, Japan, Korea) plan to produce by drilling rather conventional boreholes, destabilizing the hydrate in situ (by pressure reduction and some low level heating), then producing the methane to the surface. No reason there would be more or less leakage than with traditional gas wells. The folks at NGHP are also coming to the view of production via drilling. The economics of deepwater recovery by guys in diving suits is obviously never going to compete with anything. Most likely the same for deepwater mining. You should know that most of this stuff is buried from 50 to 250 m below the seafloor in water depths of 1000 to 3000 meters.