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    Why Japan's Methane Hydrate Exploitation Would Be Game Over for the Climate

    Written by

    Mat McDermott

    The white part is gas hydrate deposited into sediment, here found off the coast of Oregon. Photo: Wikipedia.

    You know how NASA scientist James Hansen has characterized continuing to tap Alberta's tar sands as being game over for the climate, thanks to the massive amount of carbon that'd be released in burning them? Well, if that's the case, then the recent news from Japan that a team has successfully extracted gas from methane hydrates from the seafloor isn't good. In fact, if Japan is able to commercially exploit the reserves in six years, as is planned, then it's game over for the climate.

    According to the Washington Post, which cites US Geological Survey stats, all the gas hydrates around the world contain "between 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas." 

    In other words, if even the low estimate is actually technically and economically recoverable, that's over twelve times more natural gas than in all the US shale gas reserves. And, here's the really game over part: The Post, again citing USGS estimates, says there's "more carbon trapped inside [them] than is contained in all known reserves of fossil fuels." (Another widely-cited estimate puts the total amount of carbon trapped in methane hydrates at between 500-2500 gigatons, which is less than all fossil fuels, but still significantly more than natural gas reserves.)

    Regardless–and this point should be in all italics, bold, and with several exclamation points–if methane hydrates begin to get tapped en masse, our shrinking hopes of curbing climate change are gone.

    The map above, from the USGS, shows areas (in purple) where gas
    hydrate samples have already been taken, and (in red) where it's been
    estimated that they may be.

    The discovery is being hailed in Japan as a potential huge boost for domestic energy supplies. There's an estimated 39 trillion cubic meters of gas from methane hydrates in Japanese waters—enough for 10 years of gas consumption. Remember that Japan imports about 84 percent of its energy, a figure that's higher after Fukushima and the nuclear power soul searching that has resulted. 

    All told it is clearly a climate disaster in the making, on top of, well, you know, the catastrophic climate disaster already proceeding full steam ahead. 

    Let's compare all these estimates to the "terrifying new math" that 350.org's Bill McKibben sketched out last summer in Rolling Stone

    To keep global temperature rise below 2°C—which, it's worth remembering, is both the internationally agreed upon aspirational target for limiting temperature rise, as well as 0.5°C too high according to scientists to totally avoid dangerous climate change—McKibben says we can emit another 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. And we've got 2,795 gigatons of carbon in proven fossil fuels reserves. 

    In other words, McKibben writes, "We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate"—as in, to not cook the planet. 

    Even adding another 500 gigatons of carbon to the pile, let along nearly doubling it, is simply suicide (and ecocide). It's delusional madness. 

    What might happen if methane hydrates do end up getting released from the seafloor? We need only look to the past: 56 million years ago, an estimated 2,500 gigatons of carbon were released into the atmosphere. That carbon, as research last year argued, likely came from a collapse of methane hydrate reserves, which essentially melted and released by warming oceans.

    In the words of Motherboard's Derek Mead, who wrote about that research, "For 150,000 years, a period known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, that carbon [from methane hydrates released from the seafloor] blanketed the Earth and pushed global temperatures to radical highs. While extinction events caused by the PETM weren't on the scale of the dinosaur extinctions from nine million years prior, it did result in an explosion of diversification that permanently altered the makeup of the planet's species." 

    Apart from burning gas from methane hydrates releasing gigatons of carbon, another issue with methane, the seafloor, and climate change to keep on the radar is that methane hydrates can melt all on their own. Though the methane seeps that have made headlines over the past couple of summers—which were up to 1000 times background levels in spots—don't yet appear to be occurring due to human-induced climate change, it remains a distinct possibility that this could happen. Not to mention, permafrost melting reaching a tipping point and releasing stored carbon. 

    Topics: climate change, natural gas, methane hydrate

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