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In World First, Japan Extracts Gas From 'Fire Ice' Deposits Off Coast

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

As the planet heats up and the exploitation of harder-to-get-at fuels continues, Japan announced on Tuesday that it had achieved a world first by extracting natural gas from methane hydrate, known as "fire ice," from the seabed off its coast.

Burned gas separated from methane hydrate gas is seen on the deep-sea drilling vessel "Chikyu" in the Pacific, off Aichi Prefecture, central Japan. (Photo: handout from Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) March 12, 2013.) The New York Times reports that

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said a team aboard the scientific drilling ship Chikyu had started a trial extraction of gas from a layer of methane hydrates about 300 meters, or 1,000 feet, below the seabed Tuesday morning. The ship has been drilling since January in an area of the Pacific about 1,000 meters deep and 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, south of the Atsumi Peninsula in central Japan.

Using a specialized drill, the team converted the undersea methane hydrate into ice and natural gas, and brought the natural gas to the surface, the ministry said in a statement.

Hours later, a flare on the ship’s stern showed that gas was being produced, the ministry said.

As the USGS explains, methane hydrate is the most common type of gas hydrate, which is an  "ice-like combination of natural gas and water that can form in deep-water ocean sediments near the continents, and within or beneath continuous permafrost in the circum-Arctic. Specific temperatures and pressures and an ample supply of natural gas are required for gas hydrates to form and remain stable."  USGS adds that "the most conservative estimates conclude that about 1000 times more methane is trapped in hydrates than is consumed annually worldwide."

Brad Plumer points out in the Washington Post that exploiting methane hydrates brings climate worries. Even figuring a lower estimate of 2,500 gigatons of carbon-dioxide in gas hydrates, "it could prove impossible to keep global warming below the goal of 2°C if a significant fraction of this natural gas gets burned."

Also, if drillers allow methane to leak, they release a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

And a comparison to fracking made by Ryo Minami, director of the oil and gas division at Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources, to the Financial Times may offer little comfort. "Ten years ago," he said, "everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly.  Yet now it's commercialized."

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