The air has definitely become cleaner and the skies bluer in Japan as various industries have strived since the late 1960s to become energy efficient and eco-friendly. Today, cars are also becoming exhaust-free by adopting hybrid and fuel cell technology. “Compared to the 20th century known as the era of oil, the 21st century is expected to become the era of gas. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is one of the major players in promoting the clean energy movement of various industries, and Japan leads the way in the development and application of LNG technology in countless fields,” explained a professional with 40 years in the field.

Once considered a wasteful byproduct that was burned when drilling for oil, natural gas is still a very new player on the energy supply stage. “But its reserves are huge and it is unlikely to be depleted for several centuries. That is why Japan positions it as a vital energy source for its industries,” noted a fuel buyer with over 20 years of experience.

However, due to its abundance, “natural gas has almost been free in such gas-rich countries as Russia, the U.S., Qatar and Indonesia. But it has to be liquefied for transport, refinement and use in a country like Japan that is completely dependent on imports from other countries for its supply. Compared to oil that already is a well-established industry, liquefaction is an entirely different process, and the facilities required to utilize natural gas as an energy source are starkly different from those for oil. Altogether, natural gas exploitation becomes very costly,” continued the fuel buyer.

“The aging society of Japan and the resulting decrease in oil consumption, coupled with plummeting oil prices in recent years, make private companies think twice before entering the natural gas and LNG business. That is because in the short run, they couldn’t possibly look forward to enough return on investment,” added the industry professional.

In terms of its development, transportation, storage and use, the natural gas and LNG industry has consequently been a very closed arena with a limited number of entrants in Japan until now.

Indeed, all the issues cited by these industry professionals seem to indicate that this is a delicate, complex industry requiring a broad perspective, perhaps exceeding private-level actions and decisions, making the interviewees reluctant to identify themselves or their organizations for this article.

Turning our eyes to the global arena, Europe, Russia, China, West Asia and the U.S. have recently chosen natural gas and LNG as the main pillar of their respective energy policies. “For several centuries to come, they don’t have to worry about any shortage in supply because of the abundance of natural gas. Being on the same continent, they also don’t have to worry about the ballooning costs of transport. Because if the need arises, all they have to do is build a pipeline,” noted the fuel buyer.

From a geopolitical perspective, Japan is in a much more disadvantageous position compared to the countries and regions mentioned, since it has no natural resources and is an island country. “There’s no denying that LNG cars have a smaller total load over the ecosystem as compared to current electric vehicle models that require heavy, bulky fuel cells,” continued the fuel buyer. “But since LNG will also be exhausted eventually, and as Japan has to depend on imports for its natural resources, it cannot possibly discard the option of nuclear power, which is much cleaner than oil and makes the country energy self-sufficient,” the fuel buyer said. As protectionism mounts throughout the world, both the industry expert and the fuel buyer further worry that perhaps gas producers will eventually refuse to export natural gas to Japan. They question, “If that happens, how is Japan going to supply energy to its industries?” Though the anxiety of the two interviewees can be justified to some extent, their theory pales before the ¥20 trillion that is required for cleaning up the aftermath of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster. Even when that overwhelming payment is completed, it is appalling to know the ill effects of the emitted byproducts from the accident will remain on the planet for 30,000 to 40,000 years.

Such conditions make us re-acknowledge the true value and meaning in promoting the development and use of a safe and clean energy resource like natural gas. As we have so far seen, Japan cannot evade its destiny of making full use of natural gas by further improving and refining its LNG technology.

The question is can Japan do it?

The positive answer seems to lie surprisingly close at hand. Cleaner air and bluer skies in recent decades have been especially notable in cities like Kawasaki and Kitakyushu that have served as homes to the most industrialized coastal factory areas of the country. During the high economic growth era, their skies were gray and foul smelling and their dead rivers foamed from detergent. The pollution level was so bad that many children suffered from an acute lymph node illness known as Kawasaki Disease.

Instead of a cover-up, however, the administration, the citizens and the industries stood up to do something about the situation. In the case of Kawasaki, they laid down the most stringent pollution control act in the world during the 1970s. The industries cooperated by trying to make their factories more energy-efficient and clean. The citizens monitored the movements of both the industries and the administration, requesting amendments and improvements to be made whenever they felt necessary.

The result after 30 years was pure air to the extent of offering magnificent view of Mount Fuji very frequently and pristine rippling waters with wildlife returning and ayu (sweetfish) swimming upstream.

“Utilization of clean energy, including LNG, is the lifeline strategy for us. Going a step further, we are currently examining ways to utilize hydrogen efficiently,” said Tomohiro Takahashi, manager of the Coastal Area Project Promotion Department of the Coastal Area International Strategy Headquarters of Kawasaki.

Exporting their patented pollution control technologies to countries such as China, Kawasaki today has become a wealthy, clean city clearing its negative image and becoming a popular residential area with the wealthy younger generation.

As we observe the global trend toward natural gas use, Japan’s lead in natural gas liquefying technology, coupled by the success stories of cities like Kawasaki, there is no denying that the country is in a good position to lead the way in LNG utilization.

If this is the case, we can look forward to Japan leading the way in bringing a bright future for everybody, through the creation of a win-win-win situation for the citizens, the industries and the countries and regions on the planet. After all, should we not bear responsibility of retaining a better environment on Earth for our children, grandchildren and future generations to come?

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