Monday, August 02, 2010

Methane Hydrate Risk in our Pursuit of Energy

Everyone knows business men are trustworthy. Hell, survey after survey shows that they are more trusted than the family doctor or your local banker or pharmacist or those bleeding-heart scientists writing global warming reports for the IPCC or, God forbid, that wacko environmentalist living down the street who keeps showing up at all those Greenpeace demonstrations. So, of course we can count on business men, these pillars of society, to protect the environment and do the right thing and make decisions in the best interest of "the little people", as Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, so eloquently put it.

And we can trust corporations, like BP, Exxon, Halliburton, Enron and Lehman Brothers, to monitor and police their own operations. If they find something wrong they will make sure it gets fixed, and quickly. So there is no need for us or our governments to hold them accountable. They will hold themselves accountable. After all, isn't BP voluntarily setting aside $20-billion to cover costs and claims resulting from the Gulf oil spill? And don't they have thousands of people on the beaches and on shrimp boats cleaning up the oil spill? Oh wait, they were strong-armed into all of that by President Obama. Well they would have done it anyway, right?

The reality is, in my opinion, that the inordinate faith and trust afforded business and industry leaders and executives is both misplaced and highly irrational in face of the evidence of the collateral damage of their profit-centred decisions and actions over the last several decades. The reality is that, despite the fact that in the beginning people were prone to exclaim, "what a terrible accident", this was no accident. Far from it. The disaster that befell The Deepwater Horizon was the result of very high-risk human decisions in the face of overwhelming evidence that should have caused them to turn back. But don't take my word for it.

The following is from an article in entitled Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout? "Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch. One liter of water ice that has trapped individual methane molecules in the "cages" of its crystal structure can release 168 liters of methane gas when the ice decomposes. Bea [professor Robert Bea, of University of California, Berkeley], who has 55 years of experience assessing risks in and around offshore operations, says "there was concern at this location for gas hydrates. We're out to the [water depth] where it ought to be there." The deeper the water, the greater the pressure, which when high enough can keep hydrates stable well below the sea floor. .... And there were signs that drillers did encounter hydrates. About a month before the blowout, a "kick" of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. "Something under high pressure was being encountered," says Bea—apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions."[3]

This is from a piece on the History channel titled, Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel. "The Horizon rig’s mechanic stated the well had problems for months, the drill repeatedly kicked due to methane gas pressure, the levels of gas were twice as high as he’d ever seen in his career. According to interviews with platform workers conducted during BP’s internal investigation, a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding. .......the upper mile of seafloor is cemented by methane hydrate which is much like permafrost and is stratified in layers. It melts and changes phases instantly back into gas at about 60F or 17C degrees. We have every reason to believe the hot pressurized oil and gas is eroding layers of formations from large leaks 1000 feet below the well head, probably more leaks below. There seems to be no way to stop this well and the processes will likely continue like opening cracks in a dam. At some point the well head pipe will blow off leaving an open hole … the substrate rock is fractured below the previously impermeable hydrate layers above."[4]

This warning is from an article title BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate on a site, "Because drilling can bring warm fluids up from depth, potentially melting the shallower gas hydrate, many researchers and engineers anticipate that drilling through gas hydrate may pose a hazard to the stability of the well, the platform anchors, the tethers, or even entire platforms."[5]

A further warning on Discovery is contained in this piece titled, Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters. "The decision by BP and many other energy companies to drill through areas of unusual ice-like crystals -- called methane hydrates -- is a risky one fraught with huge consequences for failure. .... "Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it's been well established for decades that they are dangerous," said Richard Charter, head of the Defenders of Wildlife marine program and member of the Department of Energy's methane hydrates advisory panel. "Until 10 or 15 years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what." .... Now, Charter said, the rush to produce more oil for domestic consumption has forced companies like BP to take bigger risks by drilling in deep waters that are a breeding ground of hydrates. And they worry that a new drilling push into the Arctic Ocean -- which President Barack Obama has authorized to begin next month -- could expose a fragile and remote environment to additional risks from catastrophic oil spills." [7]

This sort of thing is not new. I was with Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster from a chemical gas leak at one of their plants in Bhopal India that killed several thousand people living near the plant. You could virtually hear the collective exhaled sigh of relief from the rest of the petrochemical industry at the time. The disaster at Bhopal was an accident waiting to happen, just as was the BP Gulf oil spill. The practices employed in the petrochemical industry, though within industry and legislative guidelines, were inevitably going to result in an event like Bhopal. The collective sigh of relief within the industry after Bhopal was the relief that it had happened to some other company first.

And therein lies the basis of my one tiny bit of sympathy for BP. Even though an entire industry my utilize practices that are inevitably going to lead to a disaster somewhere down the road (and huge, and very expensive political lobbies generally exist to make sure their hands aren't tied by needless safety standards), the blame for that disaster, when it happens, falls squarely on the sole shoulders of the one company that unfortunately is first to fall on its face. They bear all of the blame and finger pointing, even (or especially?) from others within their own industry employing the same risky practices, simply because they were the first to fall into the trap. The others within the industry are often prevented from later falling into the same trap by changes in the legislative and monitoring environment, changes that should have existed before.

Following Bhopal, Union Carbide eventually was broken into its component parts and sold off, along with company assets, in order for some shell of the former industrial giant to survive. And BP, the disaster already costing them untold billions, will undoubtedly go through the same process as it spirals downward. It may, like Union Carbide, ultimately survive, or it may not.

As another example, similar industry-wide risks are being taken throughout the US by the shale-gas industry. They use a process called hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale rock. A massive surge in drilling - with hundreds of thousands of new gas wells across the country - was begun under the Bush administration. That industry, with the help and blessing of Vice President Cheney's NEPDG (National Energy Policy Development Group) was summarily exempted from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and dozens of other similar pieces of needlessly restrictive environmental legislation passed over the previous decades intended to protect the environment. The very predictable result is that underground water supplies and aquifers in most areas where this type of drilling is done have been contaminated with both natural gas and the toxic chemicals used in the drilling and extraction processes. People previously utilizing those underground water sources can now literally burn the water coming out of their taps because it is so highly contaminated with natural gas. They may not have drinkable water but at least they're getting their gas for free.

As those who have followed my blog know - and I apologize for the drop-off in articles over this past winter and spring because of personal health issues - I have been writing about methane hydrates for over four years now. And I strongly believe the BP Gulf disaster is far from over. I believe the whole reserve of Methane Hydrates through which the BP rig drilled has been destabilized and will continue to release its methane into the Gulf - readings near the well head already indicate methane levels up to a million times higher than normal - for many years to come. I further believe that if the well is successfully capped the hydrates will continue to release their methane and eventually result in a massive and explosive methane release the likes of which has not been seen in recorded history. In addition, recent readings indicate that the free oil in the Gulf is declining due to a virtual explosion of the bacteria that consume the oil. But that is a double edged sword because this bacterial bloom is rapidly building a dead zone in the Gulf with insufficient oxygen to support the marine life that normally inhabits these warm tropical waters.

But as bad as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking may have been and as environmentally disastrous as the resulting Gulf oil spill is, this is still not the really serious environmental disaster I foresee if we continue toward full exploitation of Methane Hydrates as an energy source. And that is a serious interest and intent of the governments of several nations, among them; Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, India, China, Canada, and the U.S. And the list grows every day.

The problem is - and this is a subject that is constantly debated - that methane hydrates are inherently unstable. It is a structure (methane gas trapped in a cage of water ice) composed of two opposing forces; the attempt by the ice cage to retain its crystalline structure and the attempt by the methane concentrated within that structure to re-expand (168 times) back into a free gas. And the only one of those two opposing forces that is stable and constant is that of the gas trying to free itself from the structure. The ice that contains it is subject to change with any change in the pressure around it or the temperature, or both.

If deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or, more seriously, in the fragile Arctic Ocean, continues to push into Methane Hydrate zones, the risk of massive hydrate destabilization grows with each well. Once a deposit of Methane Hydrates is destabilized, if changes in temperature or pressure are sufficient to support it, the whole deposit can release its methane. That release could be gradual but there is just as strong a probability that it could be explosive and massive. Remember, methane is concentrated at 168 times the density of the gas in hydrate form, meaning it will expand 168 times when it reverts back into a gas. This can cause an explosive uplift in the seafloor overlaying the hydrate formation. It could result in a collapse of that area of seafloor. In either case, if rapid and explosive enough, the release could trigger a tsunami. The resulting environmental damage of such an event in the Arctic, or the serious potential of risk for residents living along the gulf shore on the Gulf of Mexico should such an event happen there, should cause both governments and energy companies to take serious pause following the current Gulf oil spill. A simple question needs to dominate all such discussions and considerations. Is our thoughtless energy greed worth the rapidly escalating risks that our pursuit of that energy is causing us to take?

Will that question even be considered?

1) Global Oil Supply Now Contracting?
2) BP’s oil spill fight plagued by methane hydrates, a hazard of deep water
3) Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
4) Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel
5) BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate
6) BP Oil Spill – Methane Hydrate Never Mentioned – For What it’s Worth Buffalo Springfield
7) Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters
Energy companies used to avoid methane hydrates no matter what. Now the industry may be drilling right into danger.
8) Ocean Warming Melts Methane Hydrates Which Screws Us All

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