Fossil fuels to last for centuries


Methane hydrate deposits

On Friday, I was privileged to visit the British Geological Survey, at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire.  My main interests were to get a clear understanding of the potential for shale gas in the UK, and also to understand better the availability of suitable UK sites for long-term geological storage of nuclear waste.

On shale gas, the answer seems to be that we simply don’t yet know the scale of commercially exploitable shale gas, though it may be considerable.  So it is wrong to regard shale gas as Britain’s get-out-of-jail card to solve our energy crisis.  But it is also wrong for Ed Davey to talk down the potential of shale gas, because like everyone else, he just doesn’t know.  It would be doubly wrong to ignore the potential and fail to investigate it thoroughly.

I was reassured to learn that while BGS recognises both the real risks and the public concerns about the safety of shale gas extraction, they believe that these risks are manageable and comparable to other energy technologies.  I was shocked to read alarmist newspaper reports speaking of “earthquakes” in the North West associated with shale gas drilling.  What we saw in fact was two minor earth tremors comparable to natural background seismic activity, or to the minor tremors associated with coal mining.

On nuclear waste, BGS seems confident that there are a number of sites which would be suitable for safe long-term geological storage of nuclear waste.  The problem, of course, is public anxiety over anything associated with the word “nuclear”.  We need to emphasise that these sites are safe; that they can have a relatively modest and non-intrusive surface footprint — certainly no worse than other industrial developments; and that such a site can bring in money, jobs and infrastructure.  The income for the local authority from such an operation can help reduce local taxes for local residents over many decades.  But telling that story is a job for politicians, not the BGS.

Perhaps the most exciting thing I learned on my visit was about neither of these subjects, but about a novel source of natural gas, or methane.  I’d recently heard the term “methane hydrates”, but I knew precious little about it.  Hydrates have been known of for 200 years, but they first came to attention as a problem in the pipeline transmission of natural gas, where pipes can be blocked by solid methane hydrate which can form in the pipes under certain conditions.  The first sourcing of methane from hydrates first occurred almost accidentally during drilling for natural gas in the Russian Arctic in the 1970s.

Methane hydrate is a chemical structure in which methane molecules became trapped in water crystals.  A great deal of methane can be contained in this way.  A cubic volume of methane hydrate can yield 150 times the volume of methane gas at normal temperature and pressure.

It has now become clear that methane hydrate is very common not only in perma-frost, as in the Russian Arctic, but under the sea-bed at depths of around 500 feet — so around the edges of the continental shelf.  The map above shows known or inferred deposit sites.  Sadly few are close to the UK (our continental shelf is too wide), but methane hydrate is widely distributed around the world.  And here’s the killer — it’s estimated that there’s as much carbon sequestered in methane hydrates as in all the world’s known reserves of fossil fuels combined.

The Greens of course are in a panic, because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and they fear accidental leakage of methane to the atmosphere.  The answer is: get over it.  All energy extraction technologies involve some risk.  Our challenge is to manage the risk, not to eschew the technology.  If the Greens were to stop and think (as they so rarely do) they could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal capacity with methane/gas capacity.

Japan, India, USA, Canada, Norway and Russia are active in developing this technology.  Given British expertise in off-shore drilling, we shouldn’t ignore it.

We keep hearing about “Peak Oil”, after which fossil fuels run out.  All I can say is, don’t hold your breath.  As prices rise, novel sources become commercial.  Tar-sand oil is coming on-stream.  America is sitting on centuries-worth of shale gas.  And now it seems that unimaginable quantities of natural gas may become available from methane hydrates.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  And fossil fuel shortages are driving new thinking, and new solutions.

June 22nd at the British Geological Survey

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Fossil fuels to last for centuries

  1. The Greens ought to be encouraged to stimulate R&D for better new sources of power generation, rather than hampering the rest of the world by decrying and seeking to stifle our application of traditional means of power production. Otherwise, they should be ignored, as having shot their bolt, ending in futility in Rio.

  2. You misunderstand ‘peak oil’, Roger, as so many do. It’s not the point after which supplies run out — they’ll never totally ‘run out’: it’s the point at which supply cannot meet demand, resulting in the markets raising the price exponentially. The main problem of that scenario is not just the cost of transport rising, it’s that the cost of fossil oil is such a large component of large-scale food production that the price of food then also rises exponentially. So much of modern society is built on the consumption of a steady supply of cheap fossil energy that you don’t have to think too hard to imagine the change that will result from rapidly rising prices.

    We can agree that the development of alternative power sources — including nuclear — is a priority. But then I remember filming the JET project at Oxford in the early 80’s when I was told by scientists that fusion was still 30 years away. Today the scientists tell us that fusion is 50 years away. So alternatives will not be easy, which is why efficiency and renewables are so crucial.

    • Thanks John. I may be guilty of a lack of clarity, but not, I think, of ignorance. And I don’t define “Peak Oil” as the point at which demand exceeds supply. I define it as the point when annual production can no longer be increased. Supply may well fall short of demand before then. Fossil fuels will run out (for all practical purposes) after Peak Oil — but not immediately after. Perhaps decades or centuries later. My point is that repeated doom-mongers’ tales (starting with Paul Ehrlich who expected oil to run out last century) have been wrong and wrong and wrong, again and again. The point is that scarcity drives up prices, which makes previously uneconomic fields commercial. Higher prices also motivate entirely new and unconventional sources. And given that natural gas can do just about everything that oil can do, we can be running cars — and industry — on fossil fuels for centuries, if we’re right about Methane Hydrates.

  3. David H. Walker says:

    Roger, you must irritate the crisis constructors to no end, and I’m with you. Regardless of “peak oil”, if the only the people understood how they’ve been hoodwinked into believing shortage myths, we might see the price of oil tumble.

    I’ve always been a bit confused about the term “fossil fuel”. Methane is pervasive in our solar system, especially on Earth and those planets farther from the sun. If methane is a fossil fuel, how did solid megalithic methane structures form on other planets, and how did those moons orbiting those planets form?

    I’ll stop here before I get accused of heresy.

  4. Mr. Russell, your definition of “peak oil” is close but not dead on. Peak-oil is not about a comparison to demand but rather a consideration of the 1960’s “Hubbard Curve”. The Hubbard Curve should not be considered a curve at all but rather a series of spikes. The industry, at one point, determined that the curve would apply only to conventional oil production but now the technology increases, including hydro-fracturing, no longer limit conventional oil to a curve.

    First, it is important to know that the conventional methods of extracting oil and gas leave as much as 70% of the oil in ground. This means that with enhanced recovery methods we will be able to go back into the old wells and continue to deplete these sources for centuries to come.

    Add to this the unconventional means of extraction and a conversion of our use away from oil as a means of propulsion and we have plenty of time for you to work on fusion…

  5. Derek says:

    A very interesting post. Roger which I have linked to on my blog. I also blogged on this here

  6. Pingback: Could shale be used to store high level nuclear waste? | Residents Action on Fylde Fracking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s