Friday, March 26, 2010

Methane Hydrates: The Planet's Largest Single Carbon Sink?

Methane hydrates are perhaps the largest and most important carbon sink on the planet. Some scientific estimates place the amount of carbon stored in methane hydrates as greater than all the carbon stored in oil, natural gas and coal combined.[1] They are critical in maintaining the stability of earth's atmosphere and temperature.

What is a carbon sink? According to, as an example, "A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon that it releases, whilst a carbon source is anything that releases more carbon than is absorbed. Forests, soils, oceans and the atmosphere all store carbon and this carbon moves between them in a continuous cycle. This constant movement of carbon means that forests act as sources or sinks at different times."[5]

Two primary carbon sinks, however, were not involved in that continuous cycling of carbon. Fossil fuel reserves (oil, natural gas and coal) and methane hydrate reserves (methane hydrates should properly be included in the categorization of fossil fuels), like the carbon locked in rocks, locked up carbon in stable reserves and took it out of the cycle. Until man started exploiting and burning fossil fuels those reserves were sinks only. We have, unfortunately, turned fossil fuels into one of the largest carbon sources on the planet. Now we are threatening to do the same with methane.

As recently as 1971, in fact, methane was not even on the radar as an important greenhouse gas. According to the report, Methane: A Scientific Journey from Obscurity to Climate Super-Stardom, "The first survey in 1971 on the possibility of inadvertent human modification of climate stated that "Methane has no direct effects on the climate or the biosphere [and] it is considered to be of no importance". The gas did not even appear in the index of the major climatology book of the time (Lamb's Climate Past, Present and Future)."[3]

As a result the study of methane hydrates is still very much in its infancy. Most of the research to date, in fact, has focused on the potential of using the methane in those hydrates as an energy source in light of the approaching peak and decline in oil and other fossil fuels. There has been little attention and little funding available for studying methane as a greenhouse gas and as a potential contributor to global warming, even its potential as a catalyst in a runaway greenhouse effect.

Why is all of that important? How serious a greenhouse gas is methane? Methane, when first released into the atmosphere is 62 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, it has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere. It quickly diminishes in potency to about 20 times that of carbon dioxide and will completely oxidize after about twenty years. But that's not the end of it's importance as a greenhouse gas. Methane in the upper atmosphere oxidizes into carbon dioxide and water vapour (also an important greenhouse gas) and will remain in the upper atmosphere as carbon dioxide for another hundred years. So it has a very potent early life as a greenhouse gas but also a long term life cycle as both reduced potency methane gas and then carbon dioxide.

One of the troubling aspects of methane hydrates (much more on this later) is that the methane in the hydrate is in gaseous form and under pressure. Where compressed natural gas (CNG) is artificially compressed and stored in steel cylinders or other containment vessels at pressures of 200-248 atmospheres,[6] the methane gas in methane hydrates is naturally present at a pressure of 162 atmospheres in a cage of ice.[4] Anyone who has ever seen a gas cylinder explode knows how explosive gases under pressure can be with a sudden release of that pressure.

Keith Bennett, a reader of my blog from the UK, recently sent me an e-mail in which he reminded me, "every time we have messed with nature we have found that we harm the ‘delicate balance’." This is what has bothered me with the increasing talk of exploiting methane hydrates as an energy source. We have already drastically impacted the other primary carbon sinks on this planet; cutting and burning the forests, dredging up and burning the fossil fuel reservoirs, destroying the carbon sequestration ability of our soils, saturating the oceans and diminishing their ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, drastically changing the makeup of the atmosphere. We keep transferring the planet's carbon from stable sinks and reservoirs into the comparatively unstable atmosphere as carbon dioxide by burning massive volumes of fossil fuels. To date, methane hydrates were the last major carbon sink that we had not destroyed, a shortcoming we seem to be hell bent to rectify.

Ignorance may have been a legitimate excuse when we began the process of destroying the other important carbon sinks. We just did not realize the impact we were having. But we have now known for many decades and still continue to inflict damage on this planet's environment through our misuse and abuse of the carbon cycle. To now, with all that we have learned, head into the destruction of the last major carbon sink in the pursuit of more energy is to do so with no remaining excuse of ignorance to use. There is ignorance, but not such as to justify going forward. We simply do not know how important methane hydrates are as a carbon sink. We don't know what impact on the future livability of this planet we will have by exploiting methane hydrates and diminishing those reserves. We do know, as Keith Bennett suggested, that every time we have thus far "messed with" nature we have harmed the delicate balance that has evolved over millions and billions of years on this planet.

If we take the same approach with methane hydrates that we have taken with the exploitation of the other fossil fuels we most assuredly will further upset, if not destroy, that delicate balance. With fossil fuels, at every turn, we have leaned in favour of exploiting the energy resource rather than protecting the environment, both for ourselves and for future generations. Keep the wheels of industry rolling today at whatever cost to tomorrow.

Marine methane hydrate reserves are relatively stable but remain so within a fairly narrow range of temperature and pressure known as the Hydrate stability zone. In my article (also in the blog), The real problem with Methane Hydrates is Sliding under the Radar, I dealt with this issue at length. Here is an excerpt but I would seriously encourage you to read the whole article. "The physical nature of methane hydrates and the quite distinct physical properties of water - specifically H2O - and of methane (CH4) independently function both as a barrier to exploitation and as a serious environmental risk in conjunction with global warming. ..... H2O which is only water above 0C [at 1 atmosphere] and becomes vapour at higher temperatures - reaches its maximum density of 999.9720 kilograms per cubic meter at a temperature of 3.98C. At the freezing temperature of 0C its density has reduced to 998.8395 kilograms per cubic meter, 988.1170 at -10C. The critical part of that range, with regard to methane hydrates, is that from 0C to 3.98C. ..... The lower density of H2O as ice (998.8395) at 0C (even lower if the ice is super cooled) is what allows ice to float on the surface of water. Average global ocean temperatures today (this has varied over geological time, especially during different eras of ice age and global warming) is 2C. At 2C H2O has a density 999.9400, between that of ice at 0C of 998.8395 and the maximum density at 3.98C of 999.9720. It still supports, therefore, the lighter ice even in the Arctic. ..... Because of the lower density (greater buoyancy) of ice relative to sea water, submarine methane hydrates are always under pressure, physically wanting to rise to the surface. The [hydrate] deposits only become "relatively" stable when anchored by sufficient sediment on the ocean bottom. When and if that "anchorage" breaks down or is swept away, for example, by a sub-surface landslide, the hydrates can suddenly be released into the water and rise toward the surface. ..... The density of the gaseous methane in hydrates is 162 times greater than methane gas in the atmosphere. At the temperature and pressure of the sea water around and above the hydrate deposits, the methane gas contained in the hydrates should have much lower density (occupy much more space) than it does. This physical anomaly means that the pressure on the methane gas to expand is constantly at odds with and pushing against the ice cage enclosing it. This is a key component of the essential instability of methane hydrates. ..... Gas density generally decreases far more rapidly for gases than liquids or solids as temperature rises or pressure decreases. That means two factors can affect the stability of methane hydrates currently in the hydrate stability zone. Changes in sea level can affect the water pressure in the zone: a drop in sea level can decrease the pressure. Changes in temperature of the water can have the same effect. Increase of the temperature above the current average 2C can also dramatically affect that stability."

In view of the threat of global warming, the potential impact from rising sea temperatures warrants particular attention. As the temperature of the hydrate deposit rises two opposing things begin to happen. The ice cage around the methane shrinks, further increasing the pressure on the methane gas inside, similar to squeezing a cylinder containing a gas. This increases the tendency of the gas to seek escape from the containment. At the same time the ice cage containing the methane is softening and weakening, making it more susceptible to rupture. This increases the probability that the submarine methane hydrate deposits will destabilize and that they will do so explosively.

There is now considerable accepted scientific evidence that this has happened several times in the geological past,[10] most notably 55 million years ago, as per NASA.[11] Of more immediate concern, however, is the growing evidence that there is a measurable and significant increase in methane venting from hydrate deposits on the Arctic sea floor.[7][8] The temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing much more rapidly over the past century than elsewhere on earth. In fact, atmospheric methane concentrations have more than doubled over the past 200 years "due to decomposing organic materials in wetlands and swamps and human aided emissions from gas pipelines, coal mining, increases in irrigation and livestock flatulence."[11] The Arctic is a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to showing the early signs of global warming. The concern over Arctic sub sea methane venting is doubled when considering the potential positive feedback on releasing the massive amount of methane hydrates trapped in Arctic permafrost, both in northern North America and Europe/Asia. Large areas of Arctic permafrost coastline are, quite literally, oozing into the ocean and releasing their sequestered methane.
1) Methane hydrate - A major reservoir of carbon in the shallow geosphere?
2) Siberian Peatlands a Net Carbon Sink and Global Methane Source Since the Early Holocene
3) Methane: A Scientific Journey from Obscurity to Climate Super-Stardom
4) The real problem with Methane Hydrates is Sliding under the Radar
6) Compressed natural gas
7) JGR/MIT Study - Subsea Methane Clathrates May Already Be Venting Far More Quickly Than Projected
8) Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf
9) Computer simulation strengthens link between climate change and release of subsea methane
10) Explosive methane venting at hydrate/gas transition in the bedrock

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


If and when the average person thinks about peak oil, their attention and concern are focused on the gasoline and diesel fuels that run the family car, the heating oil that warms the family home, and the jet fuel that runs the plane that takes the family on vacation. And that is reasonable. By far the biggest single use of crude oil is for the production of those various fuels. Our society literally runs on oil. But remember that there are over 300,000 other products, other than those fuels, in every day use around the world that are derived from oil.

The road between the undiscovered crude oil in the ground and the gasoline in your car's fuel tank - or any other usage - is a very long and expensive one. It must be discovered, analysed, wells drilled and extracted. From there it has to be gotten to a refinery for processing to produce gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, lubricating oil and other lubricants. That resulting gasoline has to be distributed to a service station near you so you can drive your car in and fill up your tank.

In case you hadn't noticed, there is a shortage of oil refining capacity in the United States. From 324 oil refineries in operation in 1980-81 (when the U.S. was still a major exporter of refined products) closures over the past thirty years have reduced that number to less than 140.[13] In that same thirty years no new oil refineries have been built in the United States [16], and more refineries close each year. And increasingly tough and demanding environmental legislation, coupled with a general, overall reduction in the quality of available crude oil that is more difficult, expensive, and polluting to refine, lessens the probability that any will be constructed in the foreseeable future.

Despite the fact that more than 20 million barrels of oil are consumed in America every day, the total remaining refining capacity in the country is down to 17,734,900. And 1.6 million barrels or more of refined product are still exported to other countries every day, up 33% since 2007[15]. That is 9% of a total refinery output that is already insufficient to meet demand. This means that the capacity for refined product for American consumption of more than 20 million barrels a day is 16.225 million barrels a day, and dropping.

There is no spare capacity in the system, no refining buffer. Any refinery closure, whether temporary due to storms, strikes or other problems, or whether permanent, the shortfall cannot be made up from spare capacity. The favorite mantra of economists, of course, is that supply will always rise to meet demand. An average of 2-3 million barrels of refined product is being imported every day, largely from Europe, to make up for the current shortfall. And still there are no new refineries under construction to meet the unfulfilled demand. With an average capacity of 125,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of the output from over 15 unbuilt refineries is being imported every day. That could hardly be interpreted as supply rising to fill demand.

Margins in the refining industry are quite low, with costs continuously rising. In the early days of the oil industry when the majors could sell their oil for 20 times or more what it cost to produce it, the oil companies largely ran their own refineries and were prepared to live with the low margins in the refining end of the business which were more than offset from the huge profits in the oil production end of the business. But independently owned refineries are the order of the day with major after major selling off their refinery operations to independent refiners. And today, rather than new refining capacity coming online to satisfy the increasing demand for finished product as economic theory suggests, the refining industry is, in fact, looking to reduce overall capacity to drive margins up. The question is not whether but where and when capacity will be reduced further. The trend to date is to close capacity in states where state government has an anti-pollution agenda while holding on to capacity in those states that are refinery and oil industry friendly and likely to remain so.

And where refining capacity is being shut down is a recipe for future fuel shortage problems. The two latest refinery shut downs have been in the high population upper east coast market (Valero Energy Corp. shuttered permanently its 182,200 barrel-a-day Delaware City, Delaware, refinery last month because of “very poor economic conditions.” Sunoco Inc. shut indefinitely its 145,000 barrel-a-day Eagle Point plant in New Jersey in November) [8] taking nearly 300,000bpd capacity out of the system in the highest demand market area in the country.

Domestic gasoline supply on the east coast is now served almost exclusively by pipeline. But just like refining capacity, no new pipeline capacity is being built to satisfy increasing pipeline subscription from, for example, the gulf region to the east coast. In fact the primary pipeline serving the east coast has been badly oversubscribed because of these two refinery shutdowns for over six months now, even before the peak demand summer driving season, and supply is being pro-rated[7]. Pro-ration means nobody gets what they need but the pain is distributed equally.

There is not an overall shortage of refinery capacity globally. New refineries continue to be built in, for example, the middle east and Asia and some parts of Europe, in regions with more relaxed environmental standards where development in high profit industries like oil is encouraged. So, at least for now, refining capacity shortages in the United States can be made up from imports of refined product from overseas. [13] Increasing refiners are responding to domestic environmental legislation by shutting down domestic capacity and pushing it offshore. But the more the country builds a reliance on refined imports as well as crude imports the more vulnerable it becomes to shifts in global geopolitics. And the greater the growth of bottlenecks in the supply chain in the United States for refined product.

When peak oil critics and deniers claim that there is plenty of oil, that there is no oil shortage, they are right. What there is is a growing shortage of light sweet crude. There is plenty of tar sands oil, plenty of very high-sulfur heavy crude, plenty of high-sulfur oil sands crude, plenty of oil shale, and plenty of very expensive to extract deep sea oil, most of which is also high in sulfur. But these are almost all much more expensive and much more polluting to refine. The sulfur extracted from the heavy sour crude of a single 100,000 barrel-per-day refinery would be equivalent to 5% of the total national sulfur market and a shift to high-sulfur heavy crudes would totally flood that market.[9] Introduction of ever stricter environmental legislation makes the likelihood of such a shift happening very slight.

So we may or may not yet be at a global peak in crude oil production, depending on how you define it and what type of oil you include in your crude oil definition. Sooner or later, and more likely sooner, we will get there. Regardless the shift in type of oil available for refining means that we have reached a peak - whether temporary or permanent is unclear - in serviceable refinery capacity and refined product distribution systems. In light of this reality peak oil hardly seems to matter anymore.
Reference Material:
1) What is the chemical composition of gasoline?
2) What is Gasoline?
3) Petroleum
4) European oil refinery closures get serious
5) Recession leads to more refinery closures
6) Refinery closures - how many and how fast?
7) Refinery Closures Push Gasoline Infrastructure To The Breaking Point
8) Refinery Closures Drive Profit Margins Higher: Chart of Day
9) Processing of heavy high-sulfur crude oil
10) Tesoro CEO says expects more refinery closures
11) Some Refineries Likely to Close as Demand Ebbs
12) Report: Cap and Trade Bill Bringing Refinery Closures
13) No political will to keep oil refineries in America
15) U.S. gasoline, diesel exports soar
16) US: No New Refineries in 29 Years

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Problem with creating new blog entries

I am sorry to report that there is some sort of problem with creating new blog entries. Until the problem is fixed I am unable to post new material I have written for which I apologize

Sunday, March 14, 2010


What is infrastructure? Infrastructure is the essential, physical organizing framework meant to facilitate the smooth, day-to-day operation of society. It includes transit, waterworks, sewers and waste disposal, communications, the physical layout of the community and more. It is both a facilitator in helping the society function but also, often unintentionally, serves to limit and misdirect the manner of that operation and, most importantly, development and growth. The defensive walls constructed around the cities of Europe proved very valuable in protecting those cities from attack by enemies wielding swords and spears but they have also imposed frustrating limitations on the growth and development of those cities in modern times.

The American automobile industry, in order to improve its sales and profitability, bought up and shut down long-established and efficient public transit systems across the nation. They succeeded in having the interstate highway systems implemented, setting the nation on the road to being dominated by suburbs, of course devoid of public transit. They killed the city centre and left it to rot as retail rushed out to the suburbs where the customers now lived.

Many communities, trying to overcome the domination of the automobile, are finding that the needed added investment in effective public transit, and the infrastructure to support it, is generally greater than the public coffers can handle, definitely greater than the car-culture taxpayers are willing to support, that they are stuck with the private automobile being the driving force behind infrastructure choices. In my youth a saw the implementation of public water and sewer systems in my hometown, an expensive proposition that required years of special tax levies to pay and disrupted traffic and commerce in the town for years. The benefits were great enough - did you ever have to use an outhouse during a cold snap in the middle of February? - that the taxpayers were willing to absorb the special tax levies.

Man is not the only species that builds communal infrastructure. Among the others which do are; ants, termites, bees, beavers, groundhogs, prairie dogs, rabbits, and corral. Other species, however, do so instinctively. Man does so by intellectual choice. If anything, our instincts which were formed as early primates would mitigate against our creation of infrastructure. In fact, man is the only primate that does create infrastructure. This suggests that our tendency to create infrastructure was not a slow, evolutionary development but grew out of our developed methods of seeking security in numbers, of banding together and forming tribes.

Infrastructure and organized society have gone hand in hand from the beginning. It is critical in both modern and less developed societies. The infrastructure involved may be very, very different but equally critical. Infrastructure was critical to Greek society, the Romans (the Romans had a consistent town plan that they used in the development of most of their communities), the Aztecs and Mayans, and all other organized societies through history.

The one very important factor they all have in common is without constant maintenance the infrastructure soon begins to break down. And the society begins to break down with it. As it deteriorates the infrastructure that was critical in building the society becomes a dangerous liability. The critical dependence of society on its infrastructure was strongly highlighted in a report "Cumbria flooding exposes UK’s vulnerability to infrastructure failure". The report claims, "We are often only hours away from social collapse if our critical infrastructure were to fail totally.... The failure of a single piece of infrastructure, such as a bridge, not only causes difficulties in reaching basic commodities and services, but also leads to the failure of other connected infrastructure networks such as electricity, gas, telephone lines, waste and water supply."

All components of our infrastructure have a designed life span, either implied or explicit. Bridges and dams, for example, are generally designed for a life span of fifty years. Many commercial buildings may have a designed lifespan of thirty years or less. To achieve the designed life span, of course, the designer and builder of the infrastructure assume it will be properly maintained according to the instructions supplied. A large petrochemical plant I was involved in as a systems analyst, for example, had a large "chart room" where the thousands of drawings, blueprints and maintenance manuals and logs for the plant and all of its components were kept, maintained and constantly referenced by maintenance staff and engineers.

Designed life span is all too often viewed, by those assuming responsibility for it, to be somewhat like many view the "best before" label on the food they buy, a guideline, a ploy to sell more product. They will take their chances and keep their fingers crossed. Many dams and bridges with a designed life span of fifty years are still heavily in use a hundred years and more after construction, many without appropriate and needed levels of maintenance. Many bridges built for an anticipated traffic load of "x" are still in operation after twice their designed life span with traffic loads of 3-4 or even 10 times more than the design criteria. Many large dams still operating more than a hundred years after construction have lost over half of their reservoir capacity from silting and are in constant danger of over-topping during a heavy rainfall or from erosion-induced land and mud slides. Many community water and sewer systems are well over a hundred years old, some more than two hundred years old, with an annual burden of water main breaks running into the hundreds, some in the thousands (Toronto has an estimated 11,000 water main breaks a year). In most of these communities the extensive suburban development around those communities is being connected to the same antiquated water and sewer systems placing tremendous added load pressures on those systems every year and burdening those suburbs with a water and sewer system already past its designed life span when they connect to it.

Infrastructure maintenance requires, of course, an army of specially-trained maintenance staff and an abundance of specialized equipment and facilities. In most cases, however, maintenance is short-changed, most often due to politically-imposed budget constraints. According to the report "Infrastructure Failure in America", "America's infrastructure is aging.... Now, with ever rising costs and reduced funding/taxes for public projects, compromises and trade-offs are made and only the things in worst shape are attended to. Evidence of this is all over the place - power grid problems and blackouts, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the steam pipe explosion in New York, the levee breach in New Orleans. Unfortunately the blame falls on the agency responsible for infrastructure upkeep. Very rarely are the fingers pointed in the direction of politicians or government officials who make the money decisions and choose what gets funded." This is further highlighted in the report "Metropolitan Infrastructure Sustainability Study". This study found that "Funding emerged as the number one issue facing cities today. When asked to name their most serious infrastructure challenge, without prompting, three in five cities (59%*) said obtaining infrastructure funding was a key challenge. Some 42 percent* said funding gaps were creating challenges for maintaining or improving aging infrastructure. Cities are more likely to name funding for maintenance or retro-fitting of existing infrastructure, rather than funding for new infrastructure, as a critical challenge." Another report, "Infrastructure Investment Deficit" points out that "Recent research from various associations in Canada shows that there is a growing infrastructure investment deficit occurring in many sectors. This results in deteriorating infrastructure and escalating costs since the longer roads and buildings remain in a state of disrepair, the higher the costs to refurbish or replace."

This tendency to defer infrastructure maintenance is done under the assumption that the deficit can be made up later, and the hope that there will not be a disastrous infrastructure failure before then. But with peak oil fast approaching - or already here depending on which model you adhere to - this assumption that deferred maintenance can be caught up is very likely to result in a string of those disastrous failures that infrastructure and maintenance managers have for years been hoping against.

And yet even today massive investments continue to be made in new and upgraded infrastructure designed for operation in and dependent on a high-energy, high-tech world. A quick check of Google for "infrastructure investment" will net you literally millions of articles on projects for new and upgraded infrastructure.

But what if those choices were no longer available? What if the cost of maintenance and replacement mushrooms to 10-20 or more times current levels? What if the materials and parts needed to undertake that maintenance are no longer available? What if the specialized equipment and the transport to get equipment and maintenance personnel to the problem are no longer available? What if the heavy equipment to dig, build, move is no longer available? What if all of the fuel and energy to power all of that equipment is no longer available? This will be increasingly the case as we move deeper into the post peak era.

These are the true costs of peak oil. It's not about the cost of gasoline for the family car, not being to afford that driving vacation to Florida, the rising costs of food and other goods because of increasing transportation fuel costs. Those will be, or already are, the first warning signs that peak oil is upon us. But increasing costs will soon give way to scarcity and the depth of that scarcity will increase a little more each year. At first many poor nations will be priced out of the hydrocarbon fuel market. Soon, however, any level of government without the right to print money, even in rich countries, will start to wrestle with a growing disparity between income, which is primarily from taxation, and costs. Many of the American states, in fact, and many more communities, are already struggling hopelessly to balance their budgets. They soldier on, like the funding-deprived infrastructure maintenance staffs, in the belief that the deficit will be made up "when things return to normal." They fail to recognize the current situation as the new normal, the only slightly painful edge to a new reality that will not be corrected..... ever.