Archive for May, 2012

Unlimited Gas.

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Burning methane hydrate ice (

People are getting quite excited.

With methane hydrates now a possible source of natural gas, we may never run out of carbon-based fuels. Well, never is a reach, but a thousand or so years might be the reality.

Methane seeps up from the Earth’s interior, and in the cold and pressurized sandstones of the world’s continental shelves, it is captured by water molecules and frozen in ice lattices, forming methane hydrates.

Methane hydrate ice: under pressure, water crystal lattice forms around methane molecules (

A single methane molecule (CH4) is trapped insdide the lattice of water molecules (

Now it has become extractable. This past winter, on the north slope off of Alaska, the US Dept of Energy along with Japan’s Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation, and Conoco-Phillips Oil, successfully drilled for the trapped methane for 30 days.

They used two methods, both releasing the methane by decreasing the pressure on the hydrates.

One method was to pump CO2 down the drill hole to the hydrates in the sandstone, where CO2 then replaced the methane molecules. This sounds very enticing – a way to dispose of the CO2 from oil refinement by pumping it into deep-water, sub-surface sandstone. Win-win.

The second was to pump water under pressure down into the sandstone, releasing pressure on the trapped gas. Feasible, apparently, but environmentally embarrassing, It’s uncertain how well it works – at least no-one is saying much about it.

Now we’re heading into a decade or so of experimental drilling, somewhat like the days of initial exploration for natural gas in the 1970s.

But this is different. Gas hydrates occur everywhere on the slopes of the continental shelves. The US Gulf Coast alone has enough to make the US energy independent for the foreseeable future – it doesn’t have to come from just the offshore slopes under the frozen Arctic.

Methane hydrate deposits occur abundantly in the sediment in the deeper of the world's continental slopes (

The US plans much more extensive experimental drilling. So too do Japan and China, who haven’t dared dream of energy independence until now.

What’s the reality here? We don’t know, but the source looks almost unlimited, and the experimental drilling and CO2 injection worked – methane was captured.

What if water injection is a more effective method? Perhaps public scrutiny and the increasing value of clean water will push the technology to CO2 injection in any case. Perhaps it is safer and kinder to the Earth than the fracking for natural gas that is sweeping the world.

What lies ahead should worry us all.

But then what?
Exxon-Mobile and all the other oil companies that appear to govern the world are probably ecstatic.
This is not the way to keep the planet from becoming than a hothouse.
This is the way to ensure it happens.

This is not good news.


Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Erosion and resculpting of beaches as a result of storms and currents along the coasts of the world are nothing new. They are the forces that made the beaches in the first place. Only when we decided we wanted to build homes, roads, resorts and other businesses on the edge of the beaches – where it is admittedly a wondrous place to live and play and even work – did beach erosion become such a problem for us.

Trying to delay beach erosion with sweetgrass on the coast of South Carolina (

To protect beach-edge property, roads, communities and economies, we have built seawalls and jetties that have generally made things even worse. Only when the homes finally tumble into the ocean, the roads slip beneath encroaching sand dunes, and resorts lose their shorelines do we finally accept the inevitable and migrate a little ways inland to try again.

Breakwaters on the New Jersey coast increase loss of sand of down-current neighbors, who then build their own breakwaters, and erosion just increases (

There are unlimited versions of this story. One recently in the news concerns Matunuck, an old community that faces the open ocean on the south coast of Rhode Island. The inevitable erosion has occurred, the future of the community is blatantly obvious, but once again a last ditch attempt is underway to delay the catastrophe by walling off the sea – against the advice of every scientist and environmentalist who may have been consulted.

Matunuck, Rhode Island will be swept to oblivion by the ocean surf. (

Manatuck is just one of a multitude of communities threatened by receding beaches (

Matunuck’s is a story of not giving up, of refusing to accept the mountain of evidence that has accumulated from so many beaches elsewhere, as if it can’t happen there.

No matter the evidence, there remains some sort of faith that nature can be kept under control, that things won’t need to change after all.

Will Malibu money be enough to hold back the sea? (

The alternative idea that humans must recognize what is actually happening, and get out of the way, is the least acceptable of the possibilities. But it is the only one that is truly a solution. Denial of beach erosion is so clearly absurd.

What’s missing still is adaptation.

If we can’t adapt to the familiar and predictable instability of coastal beaches, what are we going to do in the face of climate warming with its rising seas, shifting ocean currents, and erratic and unpredictable storms?

Are we really just going to continue to build ever larger seawalls to protect us from the future, hope for the best, and then fatalistically take what comes?

Good grief.
We are smarter than this.

Desperation, Montauk, NY (