Stranger than fiction: methane hydrate, a potential source of energy that may dwarf the supply of earth's existing fossil fuels likely caused the April 20 Deepwater Horizon-BP explosion and then prevented the containment of the resulting spill this weekend.
Reports that methane hydrate gases shot up the well before the Deepwater Horizon explosion appeared on Friday, while the attempt Saturday by BP to put a containment dome over the leaking oil well was foiled by "slushy methane hydrates" that built up in the structure.
Unknown risks associated with our society's fossil fuel reliance are suddenly coming into sharper focus, and it's beginning to look like a well-conceived science fiction movie. Only this is real, it's happening now, and a happy ending appears out of the question.
We can't turn it off.
An out-of-control oil spill is coming directly out of the earth, with seemingly unlimited quantities of crude fouling the nation's most productive fishery, where 80% of the country's domestically produced wild seafood supply is harvested. The oil spill is accompanied by one of the most potent known greenhouse gases, which stymies rescue efforts with acute volatility, threatening far more global climate damage than existing fossil fuels.
Also known as "ice energy," methane hydrate is layered below the global ocean floors around the world in a frozen, yet highly flammable state. Occurring in permafrost as well, this enigmatic substance has more than three times the carbon than natural gas, coal and oil combined, so it presents incalcuable risks to the global climate if it is released into the atmosphere without sequestration.
What makes methane hydrate and recent Gulf events so remarkable is that this substance, formed by high pressure and cold temperatures and discovered only in the 1960s, has more potential energy than all the world's coal, natural gas and oil combined.
The US Department of Energy (DOE), China and India have all been pursuing methane hydrate deposits and research because of its potential as the ultra high-powered energy source. Russia (in conjunction with Japan) has been the first country to successfully harvest this game-changing energy source.
Oil companies and drilling operations, however, had been wary of its dangers before the Deepwater Horizon event, according to the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory: "(The oil and gas) Industry has concerns about drilling through hydrate zones, which can destabilize supporting foundations for platforms and production wells. The disruption to the ocean floor also could result in surface slumping or faulting, which could endanger work crews and the environment."
The happy ending of our Sci-fi flick: The Gulf oil spill is stopped by drilling a relief well; the millions of gallons that did "spill" are not as damaging as thought; and methane hydrate is safely harnessed and sequestered of carbon worldwide, which phases out oil and natural gas as energy sources. Oil wars largely cease as a result, as methane hydrates are bountiful enough for most coastal nations to secure their own 100+ year energy supply.
Let's see what the focus groups think.
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.