WASHINGTON — Frozen crystals packed with concentrated natural gas and buried 2,000 feet below the permafrost on Alaska's North Slope could become the next major domestic energy source, according to an assessment released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The study finds that in the North Slope, frozen methane-and-water crystals known as hydrates contain as much as 85.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. That's enough to heat 100 million homes for as long as 10 years, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.
New research into how to extract those resources has moved the possibility of recovering the usable energy from the realm of "science and speculation" to that of the "actual and useful," Kempthorne said Wednesday.
Globally, "hydrates have more potential for energy than all other fossil fuels combined," he said. "This can be a paradigm shift."
Government research is beginning to show that it may be possible to extract hydrates using depressurization, a technique used to get at more conventional fuel sources. Simply boring into the ground may be enough to change the pressure to extract it, said Steve Rinehart, a spokesman for British Petroleum in Alaska. Or the pressure could be changed by pumping.
Gas hydrates exist all over the world, including offshore, but a combination of cold and pressure makes them especially prevalent in the Arctic, where there's also an existing oil and gas infrastructure to study them. The Department of Energy described them as "ice-like solids that result from the trapping of methane molecules within a lattice-like cage of water molecules." Hydrates release gaseous methane — the main component of natural gas — when they melt.
Kempthorne on Wednesday demonstrated the flammability of the substance with laboratory-created hydrate made by government researchers. Real hydrates, which are 164 times more concentrated than natural gas, would be far too valuable to burn, in part because core samples are so rare.
Kempthorne lit a match to a fist-sized lab sample, sending up a small flare. He also passed out small, pebble-sized samples at his news conference. When he dropped a chunk of hydrate into a glass of water, it fizzed like Alka-Seltzer. As the human hand warms it, the hydrate snaps and crackles, releasing gas and water vapor.
Two of the biggest North Slope producers, ConocoPhillips and BP, have been involved in some of the government studies. ConocoPhillips has largely been researching whether it's possible to inject carbon dioxide into wells to replace the hydrates. That also would allow the carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to be sequestered in the wells.
BP participated in government studies last year that drilled for core samples of hydrates. So far, there have been no tests of producing hydrates as commercially viable natural gas. That's next, but BP and ConocoPhillips remain skeptical. There are tremendous conventional natural-gas deposits in Alaska to consider first, Rinehart said.
"We see the potential," Rinehart said, "but our outlook is conservative at this point, because there really has not been a long-term production test."
There's room for "healthy skepticism" on the environmental front, too, said Mike Daulton, the legislative director of the National Audubon Society. The extraction could threaten the stability of the permafrost in Arctic Alaska, Daulton said, and there also are concerns that there's a risk of releasing vast amounts of methane in the process of extracting a relatively clean-burning fuel.
"There's a lot that still needs to be proven with regards to the safety," Daulton said. "There's the potential for the release of methane, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas," which contributes to global warming.
Although there are tremendous hydrate deposits in Arctic regions, they also exist in the deepwater regions of the Gulf of Mexico, an area where there are existing natural gas pipelines. Though much of the government research into hydrates has taken place in Alaska, it might be cheaper to consider the gulf first.
Other countries that import most of their fuel — including Japan and India — have been aggressively pursuing their own hydrate potential.
However, the possibility of recovering natural-gas hydrates in Alaska also could add to the usefulness and potential life span of a planned natural-gas pipeline that would send more conventional sources of natural gas from the North Slope to markets in the lower 48 states.
It could be part of a "balanced national-energy plan in the years ahead," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, calling it "great news for not only Alaska's future economy, but also for the nation."
Last summer, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin signed into law legislation that allows the state to issue a license to a Canadian energy company, TransCanada Corp., and pay it up to $500 million as an incentive to build the pipeline someday. The license isn't a construction contract, and federal energy regulators haven't yet approved the project, which is estimated to cost more than $30 billion.
There's an estimated 35 trillion cubic feet of proven natural-gas reserves in the North Slope of the Alaska, said Mark Myers, the director of the USGS. Another several hundred trillion feet of conventional natural gas also may be available, but is less accessible.
The possibility of keeping the proposed pipeline filled for a longer period with natural gas hydrates only "leads to more confidence to invest in the pipeline," Myers said.
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