— The Erimtan Angle —

At the end of last July, Ryan Koronowski reminded us of “a potentially enormous source of carbon pollution: methane hydrate”, “hidden at the bottom of the sea”.[1]  In my previous entry, Thom Hartmann’s narration of Last Hours’ first instalment also pointed to this as yet unmentioned danger for the planet. Koronowski’s argument continues that “[f]ossil fuel companies have not forgotten [about methane hydrate] and they are extremely interested in finding an economical way to extract it from the sea floor. The reason is that the latest estimates put the amount of methane hydrate at 700,000 trillion cubic feet, or more energy than all oil and gas that has ever been discovered. It’s extremely hard to extract, and all known methods are very risky. Also known as methane clathrate, or ‘fire ice’, methane hydrate is created when decaying organic matter under the ocean floor emits methane. This seeps up and mixes with seawater at the bottom of the ocean. It forms a cement-like icy compound within and on top of the ocean sediment, which actually stops more methane from seeping into the ocean. If the water above it gets warmer, some of the methane hydrate melts as methane, which bubbles up through the water column. In shallow water, it bubbles straight to the atmosphere but in deeper waters, the methane bubbles bond with the dissolved oxygen and water, creating carbon dioxide which bubbles to the surface, or stays in the water and makes the already-acidifying ocean more acidic”.[2]

Dr Hobart King, a geologist employed the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey from 1980 until 1994 and subsequently at Mansfield University until 2008, explains on his website that “[e]normous amounts of methane hydrate have been found beneath Arctic permafrost, beneath Antarctic ice and in sedimentary deposits along continental margins worldwide. In some parts of the world they are much closer to high-population areas than any natural gas field. These nearby deposits might allow countries that currently import natural gas to become self-sufficient”, adding that the “current challenge is to inventory this resource and find safe, economical ways to develop it”.[3]  Koronowski, for his part, adds that “[e]arlier this year, Japanese researchers successfully tested a new process that extracted methane hydrate from the ocean floor for the first time. The director of Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources compared this to the way shale gas was viewed a decade ago — too expensive for commercialization — but concluded ‘now it’s commercialized’. This process does have similarities to fracking, but instead of pumping fracking fluid into the earth and exploding the rock, it drills down to the seabed, relieves pressure on the hydrates, and dissolves the crystals into gas and water for collection. However, harvesting methane hydrates poses the same risks faced by offshore oil drillers — pressure, drilling at depth, and the catastrophic ramifications of failure. If the drilling causes an underwater landslide, the methane could erupt to the surface all at once, a scenario called the ‘methane gun hypothesis’. This could release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere, dealing a serious blow to cutting carbon emissions”.[4]


[1] Ryan Koronowski, “‘Fire Ice’: Buried Under The Sea Floor, This New Fossil Fuel Source Could Be Disastrous For The Planet” ClimateProgress (29 July 2013). http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/07/29/2370661/methane-hydrates-potentially-massive-greenhouse-gas-on-the-sea-floor-faces-earthquakes-and-drilling/.

[2] Ryan Koronowski, “‘Fire Ice’: Buried Under The Sea Floor”.

[3] Hobart King, “Methane Hydrate” Geology.com (s.d.). http://geology.com/articles/methane-hydrates/.

[4] Ryan Koronowski, “‘Fire Ice’: Buried Under The Sea Floor”.

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