In what had been a long time coming in Japan’s typically slow but strategic approach to technology development, the New York Times reported last week that a Japanese exploration vessel had extracted methane hydrate from undersea sources off Japan’s coast. If substantiated, the energy discovery and technology breakthrough could have enormous implications. A new energy source could significantly reduce Japan’s energy insecurity but also drastically worsen global warming.
Methane hydrate promises to provide an alternative to traditional types of hydro-carbon based energy such as coal, oil or natural gas. It is an ice-like substance with natural gas locked inside. Deposits exist off of most continental shelf areas a few meters below the ocean floor in layers a few hundred meters thick. When either heated or depressurized, natural gas is released.
If technically and economically feasible, the extraction of methane hydrate could provide critically needed good news for Japan whose economy is almost totally dependent upon imports for energy and has been on the ropes for a generation. Japan’s out-sized ability to supply the world with high value-added products such as cars and electronics since the 1970s has always rested upon the precarious assumption that its energy imports would never be cut off.
But, Japan’s energy insecurity could change if it gains a large, reliable energy source either within its territory or under its direct control. Japan’s state-run energy company estimates that the area in which it is drilling alone holds at least 1.1 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrate, the equivalent of 11 years of gas imports to Japan. Worldwide, RAND estimates “staggering” volumes of 400 trillion cubic feet of methane hydrate, which could easily sustain the world economy for the foreseeable future and perhaps much longer.
If Japan were to become energy independent to any significant degree, it might view its geopolitical situation very differently than it does today. Japan and China are dangerously near to a shooting war over who owns the rights to undersea natural gas fields in the Senkaku Islands chain. Japanese and Chinese naval vessels frequently spar with water cannons near the islands and Japan has even accused the Chinese navy of the highly aggressive act of targeting one of its Coast Guard vessels with fire-control radar. China’s yawning energy shortage restricts the pace of its economic growth and threatens its delicate internal political stability, which spurs it into head on conflicts with its neighbors over exploiting untapped energy sources.
The Senkakus dispute also commands the attention of the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry recently confirmed it falls under the U.S. treaty obligation to aid Japan if it is attacked by a foreign power. A promising technology like methane hydrate extraction could calm political-military tensions if Japan and China saw a long term solution to their energy competition. It is not surprising that the U.S. and Japan have been cooperating on developing methane hydrate extraction.
The implications of methane hydrate reach far beyond North East Asia, however. If it is cost competitive, everyone will want it, says Denis Hayes, director of the environmentally-oriented Bullitt Foundation. Widespread conversion to methane hydrate, a comparatively clean energy source, by more nations than Japan could delay the world’s political and technological progress toward preventing climate change. Such delay could allow ocean temperatures to rise, which would release unburned methane from hydrate.
Methane gas has 10-25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, depending on how many years forward one looks. “The doomsday fear has always been that warming oceans would cause huge volumes of methane to bubble up and tip us into an irreversible catastrophe. Some [discount] this scenario, noting that the largest deposits are in the deep, cold ocean. But, everyone agrees that such a tipping point would be calamitous. Lots of unburned methane is much worse than lots of burned methane, from a climate perspective,” said Hayes.