This week saw two announcements related to extract of resources from the Oceans. Firstly the Japanese announced they had successfully tapped into Methane Clathrates deposits and that they had successfully drawn off some of the trapped methane.
For those of you in the dark about it, Methane Clathrates are a mixture of frozen water with trapped bubbles of biogas (also known by the term “fire ice” as its snow that will literally burn!) that forms under conditions of cold and high pressure, often in sediments on the “continental slope” of the world’s oceans. They form as a result of sediment material washed down from the world’s rivers being broken down by bacteria (which produce the methane as a by-product), or the migration of gas up from geological faults. These conditions in the sediments of the deep oceans are such that some of this methane ends up getting trapped in these Clathrate deposits. A similar process under the Artic permafrost also results in methane “entrapment”. The world’s reserves of Methane Clathrate are enormous, in all probability they account for more locked up Carbon than all of the world’s fossil fuel reserves (conventional and unconventional) combined!
That said opinions differ as to how much of this resource is actually “extractable”. Wikipedia provides some links to a number of scientific papers that discuss this matter, notably Milkov (2004) which suggests that only a small fraction are likely to be viable. While the Japanese are a little more upbeat (a couple of good links to their project, here and here). One key question however is the EROI (energy returned over invested) of Methane Hydrate extraction. It’s possible that the result could be a an EROI of less that 1 (uses more energy to extract methane than you can usefully hope to get back) or less than 3.3 (if we burn the methane in a power station or car at an average efficiency of 30% then effectively we still consume more energy than is usefully returned!).
The second major announcement was that regarding Lockheed Martin’s foray into the business of deep ocean mining. There are large deposits of key minerals at the ocean bed, in particular large “nodules” (lumps of rock rich in various metals such as Cobalt, Nickel) at various points of the ocean floor. There are also concentrations of minerals (notably copper) within sulphide deposits near the “black smokers” along the mid ocean ridge.
Again exact estimates for recoverable reserves are difficult to come by, but there could easily be more of these minerals tied up in such deposits than in all the conventional reserves accessible via surface mining.
Tickling the Dragon’s tail
These announcements have results in howls of protest from environmental groups, as well as whoops of joy from the Cornucopian camp. The environmentalists naturally worry about the impact such strip mining or “fracking” will have on the ocean environment. Significant pollution from such mining operations could easily disrupt whole eco-systems, including the one that puts fish on our dinner plates!
The extraction of methane from Clathrate deposits is particularly worrying. Aside from the enormous carbon dioxide levels that would be realised by tapping into them, there is the fact that these deposits exist in a precariously balanced state. Disturbances to them by mining could release very large quantities of methane (an extremely potent greenhouse gas, potentially 21 to 72 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide) not all of which will be captured (a similar problem exists for shale gas, which as I discussed before, may have a carbon footprint worse than coal).
Indeed it is believed that destabilisation and release of Clathrate deposits have played a role in several mass extinctions of the past (the so-called “Clathrate Gun” hypothesis), notably the Permian Extinction event and the Eocene Thermal Maximum event. Thus it is feared by many scientists that our own emissions of Greenhouse gases could heat the planet enough to destabilise these deposits and unleash a runaway greenhouse effect. Consequently, tinkering with Methane Clathrate deposits, as George Monbiot discusses, could be the equivalent of literally playing with fire or tickling the tail of an angry dragon.
That said, I’m sure those involved in Methane Hydrate extract will argue that if there is a risk of said deposits destabilising in the future, better to mine them now to prevent this. Even if you burnt the gas and released the CO2 straight into the atmosphere (rather than trying to capture it) you’d still yield a net reduction in relative carbon emissions (given the much lower carbon footprint of CO2 v’s methane).
I would counter this argument, by pointing out that A) a more sensible strategy would be to cut carbon emissions now and never have to worry about a “Calthrate Gun” scenario, and that B) the deposits most vulnerable to destabilisation may not be the ones that are economically extractable.
Similarly, mining the ocean for metals has to be weighted up against its costs. While yes a few mega corps might make a tidy wee profit, but consider the impact on the global fishing industry, which is worth many tens of billions of dollars and represents a major source of food to many countries (notably to nations such as Japan). Also the ecosystem of the oceans is a key part of the global carbon cycle and disruptions due to mining could have a catastrophic effect on its ability to balance the carbon cycle.
Scrapping the bottom of the barrel
The cornucopian’s position, that we need never worry about shortages of primary metals or energy as “the magic of the market” will always provide, is also challenged by these announcements. The very fact we’re going after deposits such as the Methane Calthrates, Shale Gas, Tight Oil (not to be confused with Oil Shales), Tar sands and deep ocean Nodules should tell you we’re scraping the bottom of our planet’s resource barrel. All the cheap easy to access resources are gone or already being exploited to the full. This leaves our civilisation with no choice (other than the obvious – cut back, recycle more and use more sustainable alternatives!) but to literally go to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean in the search for such resources.
And furthermore, one cannot extract such unconventional resources at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. Large reserves do not automatically mean a high rate of extraction. If this were true desert countries with a coastline would never be short of water (nor would wet countries like Britain ever have to worry about droughts!). To give an example, if I were to give a couple of Cornucopians a few spoons and sent them to the shores of a large lake, while I took a foot pump to a small pond, the rate of water extraction I could achieve with the foot pump would always exceed that of them with the spoons, regardless of the size of the water reserves of the lake.
While, Shale Gas is starting to become an important part of America’s Gas production, it still only accounts for a small proportion of American Gas consumption, as I’ve discussed before (in Is Shale gas a Ponzi scheme?). Indeed already Shale gas output seems to be topping out at a level well below that of the propaganda.
While I accept the argument that the peak oil (or peak gas) pessimists have perhaps underestimated the effects of such unconventional resources. But these resources are still not enough to prevent peaking of fossil fuel based energy sometime before the 2050’s (and more likely the 2030’s). And even a delaying of the peak till these dates requires essentially zero growth (in global energy consumption). Now when you consider how rapidly the economies, population and aspirations of the so-called “BRICS” economies are growing, you’ll quickly realise that a no-growth scenario is impossible. And the key point of the “Limits to Growth” report by the Club of Rome is the fact that a finite amount of resources cannot hold out against an exponential growing rate of consumption. Even doubling or tripling the available resources merely delays the inevitable for a few years or a decade at most (given that the rate of consumption will be rising all the time).
Further, unconventional reserves of energy or metals are much more expensive to extract. Hence there extraction can only be sustained if prices are high and remain high. Indeed the very fact that major corporations are investing in them amounts to industry betting that the price of these resources is going to go only one way (up!).While the days of oil may not be over for some time to come (indeed I would gladly take bets that someone somewhere on the planet will be extracting and selling oil for centuries to come), we are certainly well past the era of cheap energy and cheap resources. Obviously sustaining economic growth in already developed economies in the face of ever increasing energy and resource prices counters a key Cornucopian argument.
So in short, both groups are likely to be disappointed. Anyone hoping that peak oil would cause carbon emissions to coast to halt before dangerous climate change occurs is likely to be disappointed. Fossil fuel based energy will still be available for some time to come, although it will get ever dirtier, more carbon intensive and more expensive, before eventually peaking at some future date.
The current “business as usual” model of a throw away carbon intensive society is simply unsustainable in the long term. Like a crack addict whose happened upon a drug dealers stash, resource finds such as Methane Clathrate or Deep sea mining might seem like a lucky break, but they only serve to continue the addiction for a short while longer and are just delaying the inevitable. A policy of better recycling, energy efficiency and increased use of renewables is a more effective strategy in the long term.