Natural Gas under the Ocean: Future Energy Source?

We have all heard of the natural gas being extracted from the shale across the United States. It has changed the energy sector greatly; shifting energy production from coal-fired power plants to natural gas fueled power plants. But there is a new frontier for natural gas extraction, the ocean floor.

According to an article published by NPR, on Tuesday, March 12th, 2013 the first methane extraction from the ocean floor was successfully completed by a Japanese deep-sea drilling ship (Could Tapping Undersea Methane Lead to A New Gas Boom?).

The drill was done on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The energy source that is extracted is in the form of methane hydrate, which is methane trapped in water molecules. Methane hydrate can also be found in frozen soil found near the north and south poles called the permafrost. Methane hydrate is a viable fuel source and countries such as Japan. Korea, China and India are planning ocean drilling expeditions to jumpstart extraction of this new energy source.

What does this mean for the United States?

The substitution of natural gas for coal has been increasing since 2009. In 2012 the substitution of natural gas for coal in power plants became more widespread as the lower cost for natural gas powered generators allowed the energy source to compete with coal powered generators. The graph below shows the increase in natural gas use for power generation over the past 5 years. The United States is moving towards natural gas as the main fuel source for the future.

The United States government estimates that there is enough methane hydrate along the country’s coastline to supply energy for the next couple of decades. But there is little known now about how much energy can be attained from tapping into this energy source or the environmental impacts that will arise as a consequence.

Green House Gases

Natural gas is seen as the cleaner alternative to coal because there are less emissions into the atmosphere. However, the emissions from coal are not absent from natural gas production. Methane is a harmful green house gas too and if it leaks into the atmosphere during extraction it could contribute to global climate change.

Damage to the Sea Floor

Additionally, the extraction of the methane hydrate from the sea floor may impact the marine ecosystems. Disruption to the benthic environment will have an impact on the sedentary organisms that live on the ocean floor. Noise and ship traffic associated with the creation of pipelines to remove the methane hydrate from the sea floor can also impact the behaviors of migratory marine species.

More research needs to be done to access the impacts of obtaining this new energy source in the United States. I know I will be interested to see what the U.S. Department of Energy concludes after completing research on methane hydrates.

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