Japan is faced with a number of challenges when it comes to domestic energy production – the country is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown it has greatly increased its purchase of fossil fuels. In order to find a local energy source, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has invested millions of dollars towards exploiting methane hydrate (also known as “flammable ice”) – and today they announced that they’ve successfully extracted it from the seabed for the first time. Methane is known to be an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is 20 times more damaging than CO2. If Japan taps reserves beneath the seabed, it could have catastrophic consequences for the environment.
“Flammable ice” is a substance that forms when a large amount of methane is trapped in water crystals below the seabed. A team aboard the Chikyu scientific drilling ship was able to release natural gas from 300 meters below the bottom of the ocean. They had been drilling since January in an area 80 km south of the Atsumi Peninsula in central Japan up to depths of 1,000 meters.
Using specialized equipment, the team converted methane hydrate into ice and natural gas, and then brought the gas to the surface. The ship is slated to continue their trial for two more weeks in order to analyze how much gas can be produced. Japan hopes to make the technology economically viable within the next five years, and it could potentially be sitting atop anywhere from 1.1 trillion to 7 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrate. This amount could fulfill the country’s natural gas needs for 11 to 100 years.
Abundant deposits of methane hydrate also exist in the seabed of Arctic regions, off coasts of North and South Carolina, and in areas of Canada, China, and Norway. Although the Japanese have developed a method of tapping into the energy resource, the question remains how the substance will affect the environment. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and its release could have disastrous effects on the atmosphere despite the economic advantages.