‘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).

  • jr_hkkdo

    Mr. Kirby, you outdid yourself with this column, as one who (a wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps?) apparently has a death wish for the world in general, and Japan in particular. For many decades, Japan has both suffered and excelled as a nation bereft of naturally occuring energy resources in its homeland, yet has sporadically showed signs of brilliance and resilience with its manufacturing and technological innovations. It has, since WWII, imported trillions of dollars of energy from other nations, paying premium prices while still managing to achieve a very impressive increase in its standard of living for the Japanese people – thought not the level it could have been IF it had sufficient native energy resources. Now that it finally has a faint glimmer of hope that it could possibly find and develop a substantial source of home-grown energy to free itself from threats of political and military blackmail from its Asian neighbors, you want to rain on its parade. What kind of person are you to have such animosity toward today’s Japan?

    The Japanese economy has drifted in the doldrums for 2 decades or so, even as it survives as one of the top 5 developed economies in the world in size. If it is going to survive long term, and grow its economy for the Japanese people, it cannot do it on the back of renewable resources alone…lord knows it has tried, and continues to try, to do that. However, the new LDP administration well knows that this may be Japan’s last shot at long-term survival of its economic well-being in the world economies: hence Abe-san’s focus on weakening the yen (to stimulate its historic export industries), and doing everything he can to make Japanese as world-competitive as possible. This includes finding home-grown energy resources, to give it a modicum of capability to even the playing field between itself and (for example) China, with which it is vastly outgunned and overmatched economically (at this point, anyway). China, of all nations, poses an existential threat to Japan at this point in history (in my opinion), and we would do well to support Japan’s efforts to resist China’s numerous encroachments in Asia while Japan still has some ability to do so (with US help, of course).

    You are obviously laboring under the impression that world class economies can continue to grow and prosper without any help from hydrocarbon fuels…but you would be wrong. We can continue to use renewable fuels as affordable technologies evolve to do so, but they will never replace, only diminish percentage-wise, the need for hydrocarbon fuels, over time. So please rethink your paradigm about that. You are going down a dead end. Japan will do what it needs to do to foster economic growth. Finding/developing native energy resources to support that growth is a crucial part of that strategy. Congratulations to Japan for its aggressive foray into searching for its own new energy resources, whatever form they may take.

    • Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

      It’d be really funny if the terrific methane release that Japan is ushering in further aggravates climate change, causing Chinese society to tank and ruining the whole neighborhood in the process.

  • John T

    While extracting the gas islands will blow up.

  • More global scaremongering from a person who does not know what they are talking about. The realisation that the globe is not warming, and has not warmed in the last 17 years is becoming understood and conceded by the IPCC. In addition, the extraction of methane from coal seam gas is more innocuous than than released from coal, the competitor fuel, which will ultimately get more attention if methane is not extracted. Furthermore, the Japanese deposits of methane hydrates capture the CH4 – they don’t release it because the extraction is below freezing point. Its not dissolved in water, its frozen in ice.

  • Masa Chekov

    I find this to be a rather ill-informed and poorly thought out opinion
    piece. It’s quite clear given the author’s background and political
    orientation that he wishes to emphasize the need to develop renewable
    energy sources, and that’s fine.

    What isn’t fine is the
    scaremongering over methane hydrate extraction. Mr Kirby seems to be
    confused about methane hydrates vs methane, and he uses the terms
    interchangeably. Methane hydrate is not the same as methane – when
    methane hydrate is burned only water remains.

    He states that “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.” but it’s completely unclear what the
    mechanism for this release of methane would be, and Mr Kirby offers no
    scientific evidence to support his contention.

    Further down in
    the article, Mr Kirby confuses methane and methane hydrate again, this
    time in a bit of scaremongering regarding the Deepwater Horizon
    disaster. This disaster was not caused by methane hydrate or methane
    hydrate extraction, so it’s completely irrelevant to the new technology
    that Japan is developing.

    It is also quite unclear, though Mr
    Kirby obviously thinks the opposite, that “such looming unconventional
    fossil fuel exploitation… threatens to take important momentum away
    from sensible renewable energy development” It’s most certainly
    possibly to exploit proven reserves of fossil fuels AND develop
    renewable resource technology, so why contend that this is not so?

  • Neruson-san

    A well informed article – or so it seems. Though there are some valid points to ponder on, like an environmental assessment on the impact of hyrdocarbons, but the general message i got from this article is about an upset writer who wants to point out only the bad things he researched about his subject. It is much too polarized to be convincing. There are too many rhetological fallacies and assumptions that there arent much valid arguments to talk about. If the message to Japan was to thread carefully, then it didnt sound like so. Given Japan’s performance and reputation on environmental awareness (I would exempt the annual hunt for whales), I would think that it will be wise enough to develop an environmentally friendly way around the adverse impact of the newfound fuel source.

  • Serge

    The author does not seemingly understand the predicaments we are in. Population of 7+ billion cannot survive on renewable energies. Although, it is yet to be seen if renewable energy sources are actually feasible at all as main energy sources. Current renewables production is being funded by non renewables. No doubt current status quo must be changed especially when it comes to the ways we use energy we have now. The use must be drastically curtaled to preserve what we still have until we have permanent solution. Bye bye private transpaortation…