The World’s Next Energy Bonanza

  • Date: 10/01/20
  • Foreign Policy

Even more than fracking, tapping oceanic methane hydrates could soon upend the global energy landscape.

The fracking of shale gas may have substantially shifted the global energy landscape, but another hydrocarbon resource—oceanic methane hydrates—has the possibility to do even more to change the picture.

Formed only under the unusual combination of low temperatures and high pressure under the ocean subsurface and in permafrost regions at high latitudes, the potential of these hydrates is truly extraordinary. Depending on economics and technology, they could potentially supply the world with more than 1 million exajoules of energy, equivalent to thousands of years of current global energy demand. And they are nearing commercial production, with some ventures looking to be only half a decade away. That’s why it is time now to think about how to govern their use.

Ocean hydrates consist of methane—essentially natural gas—trapped in icelike cages called clathrates on the ocean floor. Originally discovered in the mid-20th century, the hydrates have long been a focus of national energy research programs. Recently, key demonstration projects have shown that producing natural gas for energy use from hydrates is technically feasible. And Canada, China, Japan, and the United States have all begun testing extraction processes. The race is on.Trending Articles

Although the economics of hydrate production remain highly uncertain, the coming boom raises at least two major governance challenges. First, hydrates are present off the coasts of many countries worldwide. While this makes them attractive from an energy security perspective, it also raises international cooperation issues. Second, they have significant potential environmental impacts, both in terms of production-related concerns (an uncontrolled leak could be catastrophic) and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from their use (likewise with enormous possible consequences).

The widespread nature of methane hydrates could upend the global energy trade. Existing oil and natural gas deposits are geographically limited to certain regions, leading to the trade patterns and associated geopolitics—conflicts in the Middle East, pipeline disputes in Eurasia, and so on—we see today.

But the prevalence of hydrates offshore of many countries could enable large and emerging energy importers, including China, Japan, and South Korea, to reduce their dependence on others. For other coastal nations, hydrates could represent a first major indigenous energy resource, which is both a development and export opportunity—and the start of a possible resource curse. […]

Just as the shale revolution has transformed the energy economic and security situation of the United States, widespread use of methane hydrates could upend global energy markets. Countries that are traditionally energy importers or have poor energy resources could have a scalable and abundant energy source for the first time. Traditionally, coal has been used, as it is one of the most common national energy resources—hydrates could rival its ubiquity, displacing the fuel where it is used now and preventing its adoption elsewhere. This source still, of course, comes with environmental perils—but it also offers the promise of global energy abundance.

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