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Energy potential; methane hydrates on slope show potential

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Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 11:47 pm | Updated: 4:15 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

During a test last winter on the North Slope, scientists from the federal government and the oil industry demonstrated that natural gas can be extracted from an icy methane hydrate deposit about a half-mile below the surface.

But it remains to be seen if the technology will become an economical source of energy in the future.

Methane hydrates are a lattice-like structure of ice below ground in which molecules of methane are trapped in the holes in the permafrost.

The goal of the research project is to determine if natural gas can be produced by injecting carbon dioxide into the structure.

Research is taking place now to determine what the removal of about 1 million cubic feet of natural gas did to the reservoir. If the strength of the reservoir is reduced by the removal of the gas, that could inhibit extraction of the gas.

On the other hand, the chances of commercial production of methane hydrates would improve if the underground lattice structure remains stable. About 210,000 cubic feet of carbon dioxide and nitrogen were injected into the hydrate formation as part of the tests.

One researcher told the Associated Press that the early results are promising.

 Resolving the question of reservoir stability is one of the keys to determining whether techniques can be developed to safely and economically extract the gas in the future.

The North Slope field tests, which cost $29 million, dealt with an expansion of lab experiments developed by ConocoPhillips and the University of Bergen in Norway. The federal Department of Energy worked with ConcoPhillips and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. on the project.

The vast regions of permafrost on the North Slope contain trillions of cubic feet of methane hydrate gas trapped in the ice. It’s a natural laboratory for more study.

The federal energy agency said it is continuing “to pursue opportunities for extended-duration gas hydrate field tests through discussions with oil and gas operators, the state of Alaska, and other interested parties.”

The Parnell administration, the University of Alaska and the oil industry should be looking for ways to accelerate this research, using the data gathered on the North Slope.

The gas will not be available as a clean-burning energy source without a much better understanding of the geology, chemistry and physics of methane hydrates. 

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