Commentary / Japan

'Flammable ice': a bad choice

by Peter Wynn Kirby

Special To The Japan Times

Ironically the Japanese ship that a few weeks ago achieved the historic feat of drilling down, extracting and burning “flammable ice” (aka methane hydrate, available in huge quantities underseas globally but notoriously difficult to utilize) was christened Chikyu, the Japanese word for Earth.

Perhaps instead they should rechristen the ship using the handy Japanese term for “man-made disaster” (jinsai) — a word that has certainly gotten a lot of use around irradiated Fukushima these past two years. Or simply have another few Japanese characters painted on the hull to make chikyu ondanka, or “global warming.”

Methane hydrate is only the most recent unconventional energy source to find itself in the news, alongside the shale-gas fracking boom in the United States, for example.

Putting economic and ecological considerations aside for a moment, the main benefit of these comparatively untapped energy troves is that they move fossil fuel production away from democracy-challenged states like Russia, Nigeria and much of the Middle East — places where the phrase “rule of law” remains a men’s club punch line and where petrodollars fuel a wide range of dysfunctional governance behavior.

Still, it’s not as if we enlightened First World nations can pat ourselves on the back just yet. Despite the boomtown exuberance that fracking and some other unconventional extraction methods currently inspire, even the least objectionable of such fossil fuels still give off powerful climate gases.

Carbon dioxide is perhaps the least of our worries here, as emissions of methane are more than 70 times worse over a 20-year period. It’s not called “methane hydrate” for nothing.

Large-scale extraction and exploitation of flammable ice would almost certainly lead to problematic leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane at a time when we need it least.

The repercussions of these energy developments unfortunately go far beyond the greenhouse effect. The polarized and vituperative fracas over climate change in recent years — more street fight than reasoned scientific and political dialogue — has largely restricted the terms of global debate to the simple question of whether the planet is warming and, by extension, whether scientists and politicians and others are “deniers” or “warmists.”

In the process, the majority of participants and bystanders in this brawl have overlooked or ignored a crucial point: Extracting and burning hydrocarbons has long been toxic and dangerous, exacting a heavy toll on human populations and the environment generally.

The body count is surprisingly high. According to the World Health Organization, urban air pollution alone causes about 1.3 million premature deaths globally each year. Then there are the grave health complications that afflict many more among the living, such as serious respiratory disorders and additional stress on those suffering heart disease.

Much of this man-made adversity and misfortune is the miasmatic legacy of fossil fuel consumption, though you’d hardly know it from the very limited public awareness of this pollutant state of affairs.

Regardless of the planet’s warming timeline, gradually shifting toward greater reliance on forms of renewable energy production is clearly the smart move anyway, now that societies have the means to exploit energy more sustainably and cheaply.

Methane hydrate is hardly a benign windfall energy source, despite the largely positive media attention the Japanese extraction achievement attracted last month. Methane gas from the tricky Macondo well — combined with poor management and execution — caused the disastrous explosion that kicked off BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Methane hydrate crystals then clogged up the containment dome, vastly complicating the emergency response. Roughly 16 Exxon Valdez’s worth of spilled oil later, we need to proceed responsibly with methane hydrate extraction.

Estimated reserves of flammable ice are colossal, likely to far exceed those of all the planet’s other hydrocarbons combined, and the prospect of exploiting even a fraction of this amount gives pause.

Obviously, this is not just a Japanese problem: By exploiting deepwater methane hydrate last month, albeit at a small scale, Japan simply got there first technologically. Widespread extraction of flammable ice by a range of states and multinational corporations is likely to be just a matter of time.

Nevertheless, this successful seaborne operation by the Yokosuka-based Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology has brought us to an awkwardly symbolic juncture at a delicate time. For such looming unconventional fossil fuel exploitation, as with fracking in America, threatens to take important momentum away from sensible renewable energy development that would have far less negative environmental and health impacts.

Naturally part of this wry symbolism radiates from Japan’s disaster-torn recent history. Just two years after the catastrophic triple-meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and with Japan’s troubled nuclear sector hanging in political limbo, the “Green Archipelago” is burdened with pressing energy issues.

After 3/11, Japan quickly became the world’s biggest importer of expensive liquefied natural gas to fill the huge power gap as reactor after reactor went into cold shutdown. From a narrow economic perspective, exploiting domestic offshore reserves of methane hydrate might just be too tempting for Japan’s leaders to resist.

Yet, with popular Japanese anti-nuclear sentiment still very high, a robust strategic decision to push aggressively for comprehensive development of renewable energy production now could help Japan squeeze as much potential as possible from sustainable sources while positioning its corporations to capitalize on export of new or refined eco-technologies to other nations. Japan should seize this opportunity to set a carbon-conscious example for the industrialized world that exploits renewables while promoting as much as possible the nation’s economic and environmental self-interest.

How many rooftop solar installations would Japan need to take an aging, poorly maintained nuclear power plant permanently offline?

How much wind development would compensate for decommissioning each nuclear reactor sitting on an active seismic fault?

What level of investment in renewable energy sources generally would leave Japanese corporations poised to capitalize on changing attitudes to wind and solar development globally?

Can 2011’s radical energy conservation measures (setsuden) or Japan’s successful “Top Runner” appliance efficiency standards provide lessons for building a less energy-rapacious society?

These are the sorts of important energy questions that a range of nations should confront, but post-tsunami Japan is perhaps particularly well suited to hosting a bold nationwide debate on these issues — crucially counterbalancing the sly and slowly building susurrus of pro-nuclear propaganda and misinformation that seeks to bring most or all of Japan’s reactors back online. Fukushima demonstrated the horrific externalities of having a large and poorly managed nuclear sector in a seismically active country.

Wouldn’t Japan prefer to stand as a beacon of eco-technology rather than continuing to represent an irradiated nuclear dystopia?

Isn’t smart renewable energy development the wise choice instead of risking another Fukushima that cash-strapped Japan can ill afford?

In other words, Japan would be best served by focusing on expanding renewables aggressively now rather than allowing itself to shipwreck on the Scylla of reckless nuclear power or the Charybdis of largely untested methane sources that come with a monstrous carbon footprint. That goes for the rest of us as well.

The good ship Chikyu is more off course than it seems. Burning flammable ice would do few favors for a warming planet.

Peter Wynn Kirby (www.geog.ox.ac.uk/staff/pkirby.html) is a research fellow in Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment. He has written in The Japan Times about Japan’s eerie and problematic stockpiles of plutonium and whale meat (info.japantimes.co.jp/text/eo20120620a3.html) His most recent book is “Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan” (2011).

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