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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gas Hydrates: Resource and Hazard

Peter Folger
Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy

Solid gas hydrates are a potentially huge resource of natural gas for the United States. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there are about 85 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of technically recoverable gas hydrates in northern Alaska. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE, formerly the Minerals Management Service, MMS) estimated a mean value of 21,000 TCF of in-place gas hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, total U.S. natural gas consumption is about 23 TCF annually. The in-place estimate disregards technical or economical recoverability, and likely overestimates the amount of commercially viable gas hydrates. Even if a fraction of the U.S. gas hydrates can be economically produced, however, it could add substantially to the 1,300 TCF of technically recoverable U.S. conventional natural gas reserves. To date, however, gas hydrates have no confirmed commercial production. An issue for the 112th Congress is whether gas hydrates represent a viable component of the future energy portfolio of the United States, and if federal research and development programs are appropriate and sufficient to meet energy policy goals.

Gas hydrates are both a potential resource and a risk, representing a significant hazard to conventional oil and gas drilling and production operations. If solid gas hydrates dissociate suddenly and release expanded gas during offshore drilling, they could disrupt marine sediments and compromise pipelines and production equipment on the seafloor. The tendency of gas hydrates to dissociate and release methane, which can be a hazard, is the same characteristic that research and development efforts strive to enhance so that methane can be produced and recovered in commercial quantities. Gas hydrates hindered early attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and to siphon the leaking oil and gas to the surface. Gas hydrates formed when the leaking natural gas contacted cold seawater at the seafloor. The resulting slurry of gas hydrate crystals clogged pipes and valves leading from the steel box placed atop the leaking well to a vessel at the ocean surface. Given the potential risk associated with developing the resource, and the increased scrutiny on offshore oil and gas development in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Congress may consider whether to evaluate the evolving regulatory and safety infrastructure for offshore development to determine if it is appropriate for exploiting gas hydrates offshore.

Developing gas hydrates into a commercially viable source of energy is a goal of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) methane hydrate program, initially authorized by the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-193). The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58, Subtitle F, § 968) extended the authorization of appropriations through FY2010 for a total of $155 million over a five-year period. Congressional appropriations for FY2010 directed DOE to include no less than $15 million for gas hydrates research and development (R&D). Authorization of appropriations for the methane hydrate R&D expired at the end of FY2010.

For FY2011, the Obama Administration requested no funding for the Natural Gas Technologies program within DOE’s Fossil Energy Research and Development account, which included gas hydrates R&D, stating that the move was consistent with Administration policy to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, the Administration proposed to initiate a new research program in gas hydrates within the DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The Administration’s request for the program for FY2011 was $17.5 million.

Date of Report: January 24, 2011
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RS22990
Price: $29.95

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