Friday, April 18, 2014
PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Rock doc: A new source of natural gas

The name “natural gas” might be a puzzle. After all, how could there be such a thing as unnatural gas?
The reason we call natural gas what we do has to do with history. There was a day that people made burnable gas by heating coal. The gases that came off the coal were piped around cities where they did things like light street lamps and even power cook stoves in homes.
Coal gas, as it was known, had its down side. For one thing, it often contained carbon monoxide. And it took energy to make the gas, so it never could be truly cheap.
Happily, geologists figured out that a gas from within the Earth would burn well. Because it came from Mother Nature rather than being manufactured by people, folks called the new energy source “natural gas.” In time, natural gas replaced coal gas.
Natural gas is mostly made up of what a chemist would call methane. Methane is made of a carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. Methane itself is odorless. In order to help people detect leaks of natural gas, a scent is added to it. If you’ve even once sniffed treated natural gas, you remember the distinctive odor and you’ll know if a natural gas leak is occurring in your kitchen.
In recent years a lot more natural gas has come online in our country due to new mining methods including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Fracking allows the extraction of natural gas and sometimes petroleum from rocks including shale. But now there is an even newer development that may add a lot more natural gas to what people can burn each year.
Some 50 miles out to sea, Japanese researchers and engineers have now liberated the main ingredient of natural gas from what’s called methane hydrates that lie on the seafloor. At a depth of over 3,000 feet, the Japanese tapped a vast reservoir of natural gas bound up in frozen water under high pressure on the seafloor. The hydrates are made of methane molecules trapped in ice. Some call the hydrates “ice that burns” or “fire ice” because you can ignite it with a match.
The United States Geological Survey has put out a fact sheet on the subject of methane hydrates. Total natural gas reserves are often measured in trillion cubic feet (or TCF for short). Worldwide the USGS reports that estimates of resources of conventional natural gas are about 13,000 TCF. It’s not so easy to estimate what methane hydrates on the seafloor and in permafrost may contain, but the USGS fact sheet gives this resource the range of 100,000 to almost 300,000,000 TCF. Not all of the gas may be extractable, but clearly the total amount of methane hydrates in the world is immense.
Another way of thinking about how large are the resources that methane hydrates represent is to consider how much carbon is in the ice crystals. The USGS states that the volume of carbon in methane hydrates is estimated to be twice the carbon contained in all types of fossil fuels the world around (including in coal).
The Japanese are particularly interested in methane hydrates off their shores because they don’t have other fossil fuels to exploit. They are therefore likely to lead the rest of the world in looking for ways to mine underwater methane hydrates.
Like other energy resources, there are serious questions about environmental tradeoffs involved in using a lot of methane hydrates to meet our energy needs. Methane that escapes from mining into the air is a powerful greenhouse gas, much more significant per molecule than carbon dioxide. And methane that’s corralled by us into pipelines and burned inexorably creates carbon dioxide, although in smaller quantities per unit of heat than what happens when we burn coal. Still, the large estimates of how much methane hydrates are available may mean the period of time we rely on fossil fuels for many of our energy needs will be considerably extended — and that has implications for our climate concerns.
One thing, I think, is certain: We’ll be hearing much more about the ice that burns in the future.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

E. Kirsten Peters

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Discussion | 18 comments

  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 8:57 am

    Those "serious questions" involving environmental tradeoffs from using a lot of methane hydrates are totally bogus, just like all the rest of the pseudo science money grubbing global warming religious zealots. Every last molecule of carbon trapped within this planets geology has previously been in the atmosphere in massive quantities which is why they are now trapped. It is called a cycle. The Amazon rain forest is in the process of creating another ocean of coal, absorbing and trapping carbon while at the same time releasing massive amounts of methane. Can any wacko invironazi explain to me why there is zero evidence of this planet ever being too warm for life to flourish knowing all the carbon trapped in the earth has more than once been in the atmosphere as green house gases? How many of you group think leftists understand we cannot survive without green house gases? Without it you wouldn't survive overnight. It is simply amazing to me how millions of so-called intelligent people can get completely bamboozled so easily and not give it a second thought.

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  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 9:14 am

    All that carbon gas, methane gas, water vapor and all the other greenhouse gases have been here for as long as this planet has been here. We do not create them we do not produce them. They pre-existed us. If for any reason they posed a threat to life, then life would have been exterminated on this planet millions of years ago. Simply put with the amount of green house gases that exist on this planet, this planet would be unlivable it anything the global warming fools told us were true.

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  • Dink LaneJuly 12, 2013 - 2:52 pm

    Cookie ..... We can't live without water, but too much of it.... we'll drown.... Like my grandfather said.... Don't Sh#! in your bed and expect someone else to clean it up..... We can't keep dumping out trash and expect some else has to live in it...... Besides ..... your exaggerated and hyperbolic rhetoric says that you are OVER reacting to getting caught on the wrong side of the argument...

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  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 3:50 pm

    Dink, when did the conversation turn to garbage or sh*ting in your bed? I am curious why your grandfather told you not to sh*t your bed. Dink, how is this for exaggeration? In the eastern portion of this country there are vast oceans of coal, literally several miles deep. Coal as you may or may not know is nothing more that vegetation that absorbed massive amounts of carbon dioxide and has been partially fossilized. It is nearly pure carbon. It got all that carbon it now holds from, guess where?. The Atmosphere. For some reason or another all that carbon in the atmosphere caused enough vegetation to create several miles deep oceans of what is now coal. The same is true for all those oceans of oil. Plankton in massive amounts (again while unimaginable amounts of carbon was in the atmosphere) absorbed all that carbon and is now found in the form of oil. Don't you find it the slightest bit curious that all the carbon trapped in the earth got there thru living organisms? Organisms that flourished in huge quantities while all that carbon was in the atmosphere? Rather than telling me your grandfather refused to clean your bed maybe you could tell me something to contradict even one thing I have said.

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  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 4:37 pm

    Dink, have you ever considered how much vegetation it would take to feed a few hundred Brachiosaurus'? Amazing at may be for you to believe there was ample food for them while much more green house gases were in the atmosphere. I realize what you have been trained to believe since birth but all if it is lies.

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  • Dink LaneJuly 12, 2013 - 5:03 pm

    If you burn coal, it puts airborne particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, chromium VI and arsenic emissions in the air we breathe..... That is polluting the air..... Now maybe you live somewhere that these toxic particles won't reach you.... but other people will be harmed.... It's dirtying our own pond..... Fracking is supposed to be way below the aquifer... but it fractures into water and the air about 7% of the time..... Do you want those toxins in your pond?..... Oh I see, you live away from the environment impact so it doesn't concern you. ..... Or how about this one.... San Francisco has 100s of more cars than El Dorado County, so why does San Francisco have cleaner air?..... Because the Delta winds their smog up against the foothills.... and we get to breath it..... Coal sitting in the ground isn't burning a hole in my pocket.... only Big corporations who don't want renewable energy to put them out of business and has no problem dirtying up your pond....

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  • Phil VeerkampJuly 12, 2013 - 10:39 pm

    Dink, u been duped . . . LINK - Far be it from the Environmental Protection Agency to admit it was wrong — but late last week, it subtly withdrew from a once-flashy investigation regarding whether hydraulic fracturing contaminated groundwater in the tiny town of Pavillion, Wyo. Never has backpedaling been such an effective form of transportation. "In December 2011, the EPA released a draft report of a study it conducted in Wyoming, eliciting a furor of media attention. The New York Times reported that “chemicals used to hydraulically fracture rocks in drilling for natural gas in a remote valley in central Wyoming are the likely cause of contaminated local water supplies, federal regulators said.” The Financial Times ran a story headlined “EPA blames fracking for Wyoming pollution.” National Public Radio announced that “for the first time, federal environmental regulators have made a direct link between the controversial drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.” And the Salt Lake Tribune ran an editorial subtitled “EPA report shows water poisoned.” In reality, the study conclusively proved no such thing. The research was fundamentally flawed, with the conclusion being derived less from science than from politics. . . . Also, the EPA had failed to find contamination in the existing water sources in Pavillion, so it drilled its own wells — but went far deeper into the earth, into natural hydrocarbon-bearing foundations. As Encana, the developer, wrote at the time, “Natural gas developers didn’t put the natural gas at the bottom of the EPA’s deep monitoring wells, nature did.” So when the test results showed hydrocarbons, that said nothing about fracking and much about the EPA’s scientific sloppiness. Furthermore, the methods and materials used to drill the EPA’s sample wells may well have introduced chemical contaminates. And different labs reached contradictory conclusions about the small samples the EPA collected. One lab even reported that the “blank” sample used solely for comparison purposes was tainted. . . . Dink, u been duped.

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  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 6:53 pm

    People like you amaze me. You want gas on every corner but oil companies are evil. You want heat, a/c and lights but energy companies and coal are evil. You want a good retirement but wall street and big business are evil. You want a cure for disease but pharmaceutical companies are evil. You want food on the shelf but food companies are evil. The stuff you people take for granted is staggering. Mt St Helens pumped more of the stuff you just mention into the atmosphere in 24 hours than all of mankind since the beginning of the industrial age. All the stuff you are so afraid of pre-existed us and has been in the atmosphere countless times and life still exists. No evidence exists that this planet has ever been too warm for life to flourish but countless example of it being too cool for life to flourish. If you cannot understand that and make the connection that everything they have ever told you about global warming is a lie then you are pretty much hopeless. You probably cheered when obama told those kids in Africa that he couldn't allow them to have houses cars and a/c if he is to save the planet from boiling over. The only thing burning a hole in your pocket is the trillions the global warming fraud is costing this planet.

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  • cookie65July 12, 2013 - 6:57 pm

    When you say "renewable energy" are you talking about Solyndra, the rare bird killing windmills or nuclear? I really want to hear.

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  • clleaJuly 12, 2013 - 9:16 pm

    You have made it clear you are against higher learning...another evil in the world of the educated left. There is more, pardon the expression, "science" that has proven this planet is being polluted in more ways than not. You are against anything that you, as a control freak, can't control. You are delusional and a great laugh. Thank you.

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  • cookie65July 13, 2013 - 7:15 am

    That is quite a claim you made there cllea. "There is more, pardon the expression, “science” that has proven this planet is being polluted in more ways than not." It has been very useful and profitable for leftists to label naturally occurring substances as pollution. It works very well on lazy minded people. Just so we understand each other, the earths atmosphere is @ 17.25 trillion cubic kilometres. The surface area of the earth is 198 million sq. miles 70% of which is covered with water. That's 36,614,237,300,000,000,000,000 gallons of water. The science of separating people from their money is the motivation behind the stuff you have been trained to believe. The redistribution of wealth increases 10 fold thru the use of lemmings such as yourself. If you count the stuff that comes from the mouths of leftists your claim may have some merit. I am always curious how people such as yourself are the first to claim greed, self interest and money are the only motivations of business and corporations but the thought never occurs to you that is the single motivation behind the global warming fraud. Do you enjoy being a useful idiot?

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  • clleaJuly 13, 2013 - 7:25 am

    :)

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  • cookie65July 13, 2013 - 7:55 am

    cllea, Let me be more specific. Butte Montana is known as the richest hill on earth. They mine copper there. An ungodly amount of copper. If you were to go there you would weep over mother earth break out your cardboard sign and start protesting. And after a hard day of protesting you would return to your motel room in your car made possible because of the copper from Butte Montana, turn on the lights made possible from the copper wire from Butte Montana and hopefully take a hot shower made possible from the copper pipes Butte Montana. Your quality of life that you take for granted and ***** if it isn't there is made possible only because of the very things you have been trained to hate. Wake up you clueless twit.

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  • cookie65July 13, 2013 - 11:00 am

    I don't think my last comment got past the moderators so let me adjust it and try again. cllea, Let me be more specific. Butte Montana is known as the richest hill on earth. They mine copper there. An ungodly amount of copper. If you were to go there you would weep over mother earth break out your cardboard sign and start protesting. And after a hard day of protesting you would return to your motel room in your car made possible because of the copper from Butte Montana, turn on the lights made possible from the copper wire from Butte Montana and hopefully take a hot shower made possible from the copper pipes from Butte Montana, then you expect fresh healthy food made possible by the refrigeration dependent on copper from Butte Montana. Your quality of life that you take for granted and expect is made possible by the very things you have been trained to hate. Perhaps it is time for you to join the rest of us in reality. Leftism creates absolutely none of the things I just mentioned, it only makes it more difficult and costly. Which always harms those the left claims to look out for, those who can least afford it. This is the 21st century so your complete ignorance is inexcusable and can most likely be explained by a room temperature IQ. By the way, you described me as a control freak, of the two of us, which one is determined to impose their view of the world on others thru government force? Which one of us would deny other people of the world the same modern day luxuries you take for granted over a proven fraud?

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  • TerryJuly 13, 2013 - 11:07 am

    cllea, I do not know how old you are but I am old enough to remember the pollution that existed in the 1950's-1970's. Things are much cleaner now. When was the last time you saw a newspaper article on acid rain? We have gone through the initial 80-20 round of cleanup, i.e., achieved 80% results for 20% of the costs. Round 2 has also occurred to get 80% of the 20% or 16% leaving just a 4% residual. Round 2 was more expense. The enviros are now going for round 3 or 80% of 4% or 3.2%. This round will be much more expensive with little benefit. People are often duped because we still have non-attainment days. This is because the standards have gotten progressively tighter. The major polluters currently in the world are beyond our control in China and India. One look at satellite views of the area tells the story.

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  • cookie65July 13, 2013 - 11:45 am

    Terry, you make an excellent point and it is spot on. I suspect however it is so far over the head of someone like cllea that is will yield no results. The emotional investment some have made in man destroying the planet makes reaching them with facts and logic out of the question. Her comment about science proving that this planet is being polluted in more ways than not speaks for itself. If you were to challenge her to back up her claim she would just call you a teabag hater. It is a religion by every definition of the word.

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  • clleaJuly 13, 2013 - 12:00 pm

    Your last comment got through the "moderators" and you know it. You needed time to chew and google search. You are so predictable. Thank you :) Terry, acid rain is only one issue that plagues our earth. Yes, China and India are huge polluters as is the U.S. China is taking some steps which can only help. I am hopeful. http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/bfinamore/air_pollution_crisis_gives_new.html

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  • TerryJuly 13, 2013 - 9:21 pm

    Yes, acid rain is just one issue but it is no longer front page news and an example of the improvements that have occurred. However, we must be every vigilant that the good intentions of the environmentalists do not create unintended consequences that are much worse then the problem being solved. One hundred years ago we decided to put out all forest fires. Now the fuel is so dense in the woods that when a fire does occur it destroys everything in its path. In 1995 we added MTBE to gasoline to reduce pollution from pre-catalytic (1975) cars, a dwindling population. Unfortunately MTBE polluted our ground water and waterways creating a bigger problem. When Gov. Davis asked to have the oxygenate requirement lifted, the EPA said no. So now we use alcohol made from corn. We encourage its production by subsidies. Hence farmers grow more corn instead of other crops. Corn is a high erosion high soil depletion crop. So in 50 years will suddenly realize we have destroyed our best crop land by overproduction? And for what? To burn food as a fuel? I grew up in corn country and remember tales from the depression. City people were starving while farmers were forced to burn corn in their cook stoves because the had no money to buy coal and the could not sell the corn. It happened in my family. Our CO2 emissions are now at mid '90's levels due to natural gas from fracking. But my guess is you want to shut that down. The history of energy production is from dirty and expensive to cheap and clean. We are not the worst polluters in the world but we are the biggest producer.

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