“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.”
American poet Robert Frost is unlikely to have imagined that the words he once used to liken the forces of desire and hate would one day be paired again in discussion of China’s energy future.
But the substance known as ‘flammable ice’ (or methane hydrate) is now being touted by state media as ‘the most promising strategic resource of the 21st century’. There is even hope that these crystalline deposits (methane gas bubbles trapped in frozen water) might allow for Chinese energy independence.
Gas hydrates have been found in nearly 80 countries and regions, although they are thought to be most prevalent beneath the ocean floor.
One cubic metre of hydrate releases as much as 164 cubic metres of natural gas, of which methane is typically the chief constituent. Methane, when burned as a fuel, produces far less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels.
China unveiled its first deep-sea exploration vessel for reconnaissance of gas hydrates recently, in hope that this would bring it one step closer to successful exploitation of the resource.
The Rmb400 million ($58.4 million) vessel, imaginatively dubbed ‘Ocean No. 6,’ will be used for exploration in the South China Sea, where the Chinese first successfully excavated gas hydrates in 2007.
In September flammable ice samples were also unearthed in the Qilian Mountains, in the north-eastern province of Qinghai, as Chinese scientists made the first successful extraction from permafrost located in temperate regions (the Canadians have had a go too, in their own more frozen extremities).
News of the Qilian success sent some energy-related stocks into a speculative hike. Energy-aware netizens approved too. “If China is considered by the international community to have a large number of exploitable natural resources, China’s right to speak and to dictate the market for energy will be fundamentally strengthened,” was one comment.
Such an aspiration is not entirely baseless. China has as much as 2.15 million square metres of permafrost, ranking it third in the world, according to the People’s Daily Online. Preliminary figures put the prospective volume of permafrost gas hydrate at 35 billion tonnes of oil equivalent.
But the technology for excavation is still very much in development, with safety concerns and commercial practicalities still to be resolved. Zhang Hongtao, the chief engineer at the energy ministry, told Caijing that he expects it to take at least 15 years for commercial-scale production to begin.
Best not to rush things, too. As the old Chinese saying goes, “a little impatience will spoil big plans” but with methane extraction, too much haste could go some way to worsening the country’s less-than-stellar environmental reputation.
The problem is that mining the ice crystal deposits creates serious risks of destabilised methane pluming up into the atmosphere.
That’s a frightening thought when the warming effect of raw methane is thought to be over 20 times that of carbon dioxide. The sudden release of large amounts of methane from undersea volcanic eruptions and landslides has been suggested as the cause of a catastrophic climate change 55 million years ago.
Professor Chen Guangjin at the Beijing University of Petroleum agrees that flammable ice could prove to be either a ‘blessing’ or a ‘trap’, reports the Economic Reference News.
“Whether hydrates should be mined needs considering. We can’t simply conclude that it is a resource,” Chen warns.
The dinosaurs were likely wiped out by sudden climate change. The danger for us is that a methane catastrophe could prove our very own ‘dinosaur moment’.
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