Methane hydrates: Gold’s predictions vindicated

By Kennedy Maize

Shades of Tommy Gold. The U.S. Geological Survey this week said it has concluded that there are vast “technically recoverable” methane hydrate reserves trapped in the Arctic coastal plain that could provide some 85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a significant addition to U.S. natural gas reserves.

Gas hydrates, also known as methane clathrates, are an unconventional source of gas, consisting of methane trapped in ice formations at high pressure and low temperatures. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the late Thomas Gold (1920-2004), a Cornell University astrophysicist and well-known scientific maverick, argued that the earth had vast deposits of methane hydrates.

Gold argued that hydrocarbons were the result of forces of physics in the formation of the planet, not the conventional view that oil and gas and coal were the result of the decay of vegetable and animal sources buried by fossilization. His term for the origin of hydrocarbons was “abiogenic.”

Later, Gold argued in his 1998 book The Deep Hot Biosphere  that petroleum and coal were the result of the abiogenic methane and deep-sea bacterial action to turn gas into liquids and solids.

Gold predicted – when I interviewed him twenty years ago for The Energy Daily – that vast, undiscovered natural gas resources were locked in ice in the Arctic and in deep sea beds. He said natural gas was essentially an inexhaustible resource, a product of the creation of the planet. Methane – one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH4) – he argued, is a simple molecule, easily formed from the forces that created the earth and likely one of the most common chemicals surviving the earth’s birth.

Gold, despite a reputation as an original thinker and possessing impeccable academic credentials, was greeted with scorn by conventional geologists. They said he was a crank. Methane hydrates, they said, were an interesting anomaly, but could never constitute a major source of natural gas. Astrophysical forces could never overcome the dominance of the doctrine of dead dinosaurs.

Since then, methane hydrates have proven to be ubiquitous in the places where Gold predicted they would occur. Both the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Interior Department have looked on hydrates as a major potential supply of new natural gas.

The USGS press release last week said its assessment of North Slope Alaska methane hydrates “is the first ever resource estimate of technically recoverable natural gas hydrates, which are naturally occurring, ice-like solids in which water molecules trap natural gas in a cage-like structure known as a clathrate.” USGS said the estimated 85.4 TCF of gas trapped in the North Slope clathrates “accounts for 11.5% of the volume of gas within all other undiscovered, technically recoverable gas resources onshore and in the state waters of the United States.”

In geology-speak, said USGS, “‘technically recoverable’ means the resource can be discovered, developed, and produced using current technology and industry practices.” According to Energy Information Administration data, the U.S. uses about 23 TCF of natural gas annually.

To put the North Slope hydrates estimate in context, the USGS noted that the Wyoming Basin holds some 85 TCF of technically recoverable reserves, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA) holds 73 TCF (not including hydrates), the Western Gulf Basin in Texas holds 71 TCF, and the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and Colorado holds 50 TCF. Conventional resources in Alaska’s North Slope, says the USGS, total about 119 TCF.

According to the USGS, the area assessed for methane hydrate resources runs from the NRPA on the west to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the east (bumping up against the Canadian border) and from the Brooks Range north to the federally-managed offshore boundary, three miles off the coast of Alaska.

According to an account in the Washington Post, some Alaska environmentalists are critical of the USGS report and the push for development of natural gas hydrates. The newspaper quoted Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club that the technology to capture methane from its ice-like structures “is a very destructive way to extract nature gas.”

This environmental objection, of course, is an assertion, not a statement of fact. USGS said it has not yet assessed the environmental impacts of extracting gas from clathrates, which, the agency told the Post, is “the next step” in its analysis.

The USGS report could boost long-delayed efforts to build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope to the lower 48 states. Congress has authorized a pipeline, and provided some generous subsidies, but squabbling among producers, and doubts about long-term gas prices, has slowed development.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the defeated Republican candidate for vice president, has tried to knock industry heads together in her state to come up with a plan for the pipeline. Despite her campaign claims that she got the pipeline on track, that is not yet the case. She exaggerated her accomplishments, although she did force a change in the stalemate created by her predecessor, former Alaska Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski. The pipeline, if it can be built, is at least a decade away from delivering gas, according to most accounts.