The Mystery of Methane Hydrates

Are fossil fuels finite, eventually doomed to run out as mankind exploits them? That’s the conventional wisdom, regardless of one’s views on how long that might be, and whether it really matters (as the higher prices of a diminishing resource should bring on new resources and technologies).

But the frequent handwringing about peak gas, following cold sweats and nightmares about peak oil, and even some feverish speculation about peak coal, may be wrong. There may be vast, untapped sources of methane on the earth, which can be assessed with today’s technology. From where might this endless supply of natural gas come?

The new methane sources may not be a product of the conventionally-conceived origins of natural gas – the “dead dinosaurs” hypothesis that gas (and oil and coal) are the result of the decay of biological forms of life, hence the moniker “fossil fuels.” Petroleum geologists twitch reflexively and turn red in the face when confronted with the far-fetched notion hydrocarbon fuels that are not the product of organic decay, which many view as heresy. But they may be wrong. Let’s hope they are.

Enormous quantities of gas are locked together with frozen water deep in the globe’s oceans in the form of methane hydrates. These could be the product of the very birth of our green and generous planet, not a result of the conventional notion of decay of plant and animal material. If so, these hydrocarbons are an unlimited source of energy.

Geologists have been examining methane hydrates for decades. Over that time, it has become clear that the resource is gigantic. A recent United Nations report – “Frozen Heat: A Global Outlook on Methane Gas Hydrates” – found, “The global inventory of gas hydrates appears to be very large,” from 3,000 to 30,000 trillion cubic meters. Clearly, the estimate is far from precise, with a range of an order of magnitude. Nevertheless, it’s a very big number.

Because the ice-bound gas is buried deep beneath the sea floor or the ground, getting it could be difficult and expensive. The UN report, supported by the U.S. Geological Survey, notes that experimental programs “have shown that gas hydrates can be produced in the short term using conventional hydrocarbon recovery methods,” while advising that “it is still too soon to say whether large-scale methane production from gas hydrates would be economical.”

United Nations Environment Program director Achim Steiner said, “Japan has recently tested offshore production of natural gas from a hydrate reservoir located more than 1,300 meters below the sea’s surface and other countries are also actively exploring production potentials.”

Enter the late Thomas Gold (1920-2004), a renowned Cornell University astrophysicist, who argued that the methane in methane hydrates comes from deep within the earth’s geological core, a legacy of the forces that created the planet. He published an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal in 1987, titled “Rethinking the Origin of Oil and Gas.” Intrigued, I interviewed Gold at the time for an article in Energy Daily.

His argument, which he began thinking about in the 1950s and elaborated on in the 1980s, was that methane, the building block of hydrocarbons, was locked into the earth at its formation some 4-5 billion years ago, an origin that had nothing to do with the decay of animal and vegetatable material. Gold predicted in his 1999 book “The Deep Hot Biosphere: The myth of fossil fuels” that cold moons and planets where organic life never existed would have seas and rivers of hydrocarbons on their surface.

As researcher Evgeny Yantovski noted, Gold died in July 2004. Six months later in January 2005, the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe landed on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and took photographs of rivers and lakes of liquid methane, ethane and propane. This profoundly cold body could never have sustained carbon-based life.

A methane lake on Jupiter's Titan moon

A methane lake on Jupiter’s Titan moon

If Gold was right about the earth– and it will take a lot of research and development to establish whether he was – then fossil fuels are not the chemical remnants of deal dinosaurs but the residue of the planet’s fundamental genesis. If that’s true, “fossil fuels” are neither fossil in origin nor limited in supply.