Hydrocarbons Forever?

Beginning with King Hubbard, the creator of the Peak Oil Theory, geologists and others have been predicting the end of the oil and gas era for decades.  In fact the predictions of resource exhaustion predate Hubbard by decades.  And, like the horizon these predictions keep receding as the end dates are approached.

In this decade, advances in technology—horizontal drilling, seismic technology, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have unlocked vast quantities of unconventional oil and gas, not just here in the US but around the globe.

And now, that resource base may be about to be expanded even more.  According to the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun, Japan has become the first nation to extract natural gas from methane hydrates from its seabed. Japan plans to extract up to tens of thousands of cubic meters over the next several weeks.  Up until now, there has not been a reliable and cost-effective means of extracting hydrocarbons from methane hydrates.  If Japan can establish a commercially viable production technology, it could be able to meet its natural gas needs for a century.

Methane hydrates are a “sherbet-like methane water combination known as “burning ice” and is often found in permafrost” and are the largest reserve of hydrocarbons in the planetary crust. If an economically viable technology can be developed for extraction, it is estimated that the US would have enough natural gas to meet its needs into the next millennium.

DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory has published a primer on methane hydrate—Energy Resource Potential of Methane Hydrate—that provides an easy to understand explanation of its energy potential and the current state of research.

While no one can be certain when this production technology will be developed, it would be a mistake to bet against it.  Every time supplies of oil and gas get tight, the rising price that comes with scarcity creates incentives and the “invisible hand” does the rest.  What is certain, however, is that the fossil energy era is far from over.  Just as the stone-age did not end when there were no more stones, the oil and gas era will not end when we run out.  It will end when technology develops an alternative that is abundant and just as affordable.