Davidson Glacier, Alaska

Vast Frozen Natural Gas Deposits Discovered in Alaska

November 13, 2008 03:03 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The government says that the state’s newly discovered supply of gas hydrates has the potential to heat more than 100 million homes for 10 years.

Ice-Trapped Energy Source Shows Promise

Alaska’s North Slope is home to more than 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the form of gas hydrates that can be extracted using current technology, the U.S. Interior Department estimated in a study released Wednesday.

“This is a huge source of untapped energy,” Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said at a press conference, according to Reuters. “These ice-like solids can be turned into usable natural gas.”

The study was the first-ever assessment of technically recoverable natural gas hydrates, which are crystalline solid structures that contain methane-gas molecules. The amount of gas discovered is estimated to be enough to heat more than 100 million homes for a decade.

Extraction may be far off, however. The government warns that more research needs to be done before the extraction process is economically feasible. And environmentalists concerned about the extraction process’s effect on the gas’s surroundings could attempt to block it. But if extraction becomes viable, the extraction process could be used in other areas that have been found to contain technically recoverable natural gas reserves, including the Wyoming Basin, Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and the Western Gulf Basin in Texas. The gas hydrates that were found both on shore and in the coastal waters of Alaska make up 11.5 percent of technically recoverable gas resources that are believed to exist in the United States.

Background: Energy in the Arctic

Scientists have been speculating for years that the Arctic region as a whole holds vast frozen gas deposits, and the U.S. Geological survey predicted last year that the Arctic could contain 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Of course, when it comes to Alaska and the Arctic’s vast energy potential, most of the interest has been in oil. The agency also predicted last year that the area contains about 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, or about 90 billion barrels of oil that could supply the world with energy for three years.

Opinion & Analysis: Hydrates and the environment

Environmentalists expressed concern that the extraction of methane from gas hydrates, especially in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, could be harmful to the environment. “The process is still pretty damaging to ecosystems,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands programs for the Sierra Club, to The Washington Post. Manuel says that extraction requires the injection of water into the reservoirs using a method similar to coal bed methane extraction. “Bottom line, this is a very destructive way to extract natural gas.”

Scientists are especially concerned that the potential release into the atmosphere of frozen methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, could harm the climate and contribute to global warming. Kemphorne, however, dismissed concern over the climate, saying that developing gas hydrates in a controlled manner “is no more risky than in a conventional gas field” and that most of “the hydrates we’re talking about [are] relatively deep underground, isolated, insulated from the surface changes.”

Ed Morrissey of blog Hot Air comments that, although hydrate gas could potentially boost Alaska’s energy industry, “hydrates aren’t quite ready yet.” Although the government has already been working with oil companies on extraction methods, the processes have not undergone testing, which must be done with synthetic hydrates. “Producers in Alaska would prefer to go after conventional natural-gas deposits first, and environmentalists worry about the effect of mining on the permafrost as well as the release of methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. … It’s worth researching, but we can afford to go slow—as long as we can continue to access the conventional deposits we know exist already.”

Related Topic: Offshore oil drilling in the U.S.

The government announced on Nov. 12 that it would be taking its first step toward expanding offshore oil drilling off the U.S. coast, following the expiration of a longtime ban last month. The U.S. Minerals Management Service said they will start a process today that could lead to drilling at a site 50 miles off the coast of Virginia. The move could in the future increase exploration of energy deposits off the coasts of California, Alaska and Florida. “We’ve had some discussion, but now we’re getting serious about it,” said Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, to the Los Angeles Times. “This is actually an important step in our nation’s energy security picture.”

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