Can methane hydrate solve Japan’s energy issue?

Resource-challenged Japan, the world’s top LNG importer, the third-largest oil consumer and net importer, and the third biggest coal importer, is estimated to have spent an additional annual average of around $30 billion for fossil fuel imports in the three years following the Fukushima disaster, after which the country suspended all of its nuclear power generation.

Japan has been studying for years the potential recovery of one resource lying in its seabed - methane hydrate - also known as “fire ice” or “flammable ice.” Methane hydrate is a cage-like structure of crystallized ice, inside of which are trapped molecules of methane, the chief constituent of natural gas. If methane hydrate is either warmed or depressurized, it reverts back to water and natural gas. In March 2013, two years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) carried out the first methane hydrate offshore production test in the Japan Eastern Nankai Trough, successfully extracting 20,000 cubic meters per day on average for six days. Japan’s trade ministry said on Monday that it had started preparing to carry out a second production test to extract methane gas from gas hydrates with two wells. The test is expected to continue for a combined four to five weeks, according to officials at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

In February, a ministry official told Platts that the test would begin sometime around late April, with the goal to have the tests run non-stop for up to one month. The trial will test the decreasing pressure system at the Daini-Atsumi Knoll in the eastern Nankai Trough, and would aim to evaluate the feasibility of stably producing gas from methane hydrate with the decreasing pressure system for a certain period. The ultimate goal is to ascertain whether the output could go commercial-scale in the future, according to the trade ministry’s official. Japan hopes that it can start commercial production of gas from methane hydrates by 2023, the EIA says in its country profile of Japan.

According to METI officials who spoke to Reuters, the timeline for commercial production is somewhere between 2023 and 2027, but this time frame could still be a challenge because there are a lot of hurdles and problems yet to solve. According to Yuki Sadamitsu, Director of the Oil and Gas Division at METI’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, Japan has allocated $180 million to fund the methane hydrate trial. Japan is advancing with its methane hydrate trials, but it may really find feasible and stable commercial production a big challenge despite the huge gas hydrate reserves.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), global estimates vary, but the energy content of methane in hydrates is “immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels.” Nonetheless, one can only speculate about production volumes because no methane production other than small-scale field experiments has been documented so far. In Japan, JOGMEC has estimated that the Japan Eastern Nankai trough holds 1.1 trillion cubic meters of methane hydrates, which Reuters calculates as equal to 11 years of Japan’s gas consumption.

Despite the fact that global gas hydrate reserves hold enormous potential and may become a game-changer for countries poor in natural resources such as Japan, there are technical difficulties and potential dangers in trying to access and unlock the gas from its iced cage. A BBC analysis from 2014 pointed to two dangers in making methane hydrates commercially exploitable: the danger of damaging and destabilizing the seabed due to the high pressure, and methane escape, with methane thought to be a much more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2. So, Japan (as well as the U.S. and Canada that are also studying methane hydrates) needs not only technological breakthroughs, but also a lot more investments in environmental studies, and a lot more tests of producing gas from the “fire ice.”