‘But There Must Be Some Fire’: Combustible Ice and Arctic Effects

Methane Hydrate USGS
Methane hydrate burning (photo by the United States Geological Survey)

Much of current discussion surrounding energy sources in the Arctic has almost exclusively focussed on the possibility of extracting traditional fossil fuels from the lands and seas of the region. One of the catalysts for this debate is the now-notorious 2008 report [pdf] by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), explaining that the Arctic Ocean may contain about ninety billion barrels of oil and about 1.67 quadrillion cubic feet (47 trillion cubic metres) of natural gas, much of which would be found in offshore regions, most probably in the waters immediately north of Alaska and Siberia. These figures would represent [pdf, paywall] approximately thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum, and more than 30% of the globe’s undiscovered gas supplies.

These estimates were more than enough to capture the attention of several Arctic (and non-Arctic) governments, with the possibility of new energy riches contributing much to shaping the polar policies of several countries over the past decade, as well as raising fears of an inevitable ‘energy scramble’ in the region. However, after global oil prices tumbled from highs of over US$100 per barrel in late 2014, talk of such a competition cooled considerably. Although Arctic oil and gas drilling remains a subject of political discussion in several Arctic states, large-scale fossil fuel development in the Arctic remains a risky prospect as long as prices remain deflated.

Nonetheless, oil and gas are not the sum total of Arctic energy interests. During the past few years there has also been growing interest in the potential of mining ‘combustible ice’ for fuel in areas which may include both polar regions in the future. This material, more formally known as methane hydrate or methane clathrate, and also nicknamed ‘fire ice’ (CH4·5.75H2O), is created by the bonding of methane to water molecules under low temperature and high pressure conditions. While looking like regular ice, methane hydrate is highly flammable [paywall] in an oxygen atmosphere, and difficult to pinpoint without extensive surveying. As well, it is expensive to extract, which has made this material difficult to obtain until recently.

‘Fire ice’ has been seen as a potential silver bullet for those seeking alternative energy sources, especially given that one cubic metre of the compound can potentially produce more than 160 cubic metres of methane gas at sea level. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has estimated that global supplies may be between ten and one hundred quadrillion cubic feet, or 283 trillion-2.8 quadrillion cubic metres. However, any such burning would have to be undertaken carefully since, like other fossil fuels, methane hydrate can produce greenhouse gases, further contributing to global climate change.

While found in many areas of world’s seafloors, methane hydrate has also been discovered in both Antarctica and permafrost in the Arctic. Since permafrost is easier to access in comparison with deep-sea regions, the Arctic Ocean is being viewed as a promising source of the compound. A USGS survey [pdf], also published in 2008, reported that Northern Alaska alone might contain approximately 85 trillion cubic feet (2.4 trillion cubic metres) of gas via methane hydrates. However, detecting the exact location of the substances and safely and effectively extracting it has been a challenge which has hampered large-scale development to date, and the ongoing shale boom in North America has further curtailed enthusiasm for the development of methane hydrate. Yet, over the past few months, specialists from China and Japan have taken major steps to jumpstart an international race to develop the resource.

In May of this year, an announcement was made by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) that a gas extraction experiment using methane hydrate found off the Japanese coast was a success. The Japanese government has expressed a great deal of interest in the possibilities of combustible ice as an alternative energy source, given the lack of indigenous oil and gas in the country and the ongoing controversy over the use of domestic nuclear power, especially in light of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Japan’s Nankai Trough region, off the southern coast of Honshu, had been identified as a potential source of substantial quantities of fire ice, possibly as much as 1.1 trillion cubic metres.

As well, a Japanese firm, namely Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC), had previously partnered with the US Department of Energy and the American company ConocoPhillips for a 2012 field-test in northern Alaska in extracting methane hydrate. The test site, named Iġnik Sikumi, or ‘Fire on the Ice’ in the Inupiat language, was subjected to targeted injections of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce the methane gas.

Shortly after the announcement from Tokyo, Chinese authorities reported that the country had also successfully extracted gas from methane hydrate (keranbing 可燃冰), obtained from the bottom of the South China Sea, in the Shenhu region of the waterway about 300 kilometres south of Hong Kong. The test was hailed as an energy breakthrough and a first step in developing the country’s greater energy security. Further tests have since been confirmed by Beijing, with discussion of developing fire ice for commercial purposes by 2030. Following the example of China and Japan, other states in Asia with low energy supplies, including India and South Korea, are also investigating the possibilities of methane hydrate development.

In the case of the Arctic, there are growing concerns that melting ice and warming water temperatures might lead to the release of greater quantities of methane from regional seabeds. There was the suggestion that a possible outcome would be a ‘hydrate gun scenario’, meaning the rapid release of methane gas in a short time frame as Arctic ice diminishes. While methane stays in the earth’s atmosphere for a shorter time than carbon dioxide, the former is a more effective trap for heat.

There is still some debate about the likelihood of such a massive influx of escaped methane from the Arctic, and precisely what its effects would be, but this issue stands as another example of how climate change in the world’s far northern regions will not be restricted to the Arctic. As well, should methods be found to extricate gas from combustible ice more cheaply and effectively in the short term, another chapter in Arctic energy policy, for better or for worse, may soon begin.

(The author wishes to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance with the researching of this post.)