Editorial Notes

'Combustible ice' ignites new energy race in Japan, China: The Nation

Burned gas separated from methane hydrate gas from the deep-sea drilling vessel "Chikyu" in the Pacific, off Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, on March 12, 2013.
Burned gas separated from methane hydrate gas from the deep-sea drilling vessel "Chikyu" in the Pacific, off Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, on March 12, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on 12 June, the paper examines how the recent developments on combustible ice, or methane hydrate, by China and Japan could impact the energy market.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Big reports have come out of Japan and China over the past few days, in which it was suggested that commercial development of the globe's huge reserves of a frozen fuel known as "combustible ice" has gained another big step toward reality.

The two countries have successfully extracted the material from the seafloor, a feat that was hailed as a potentially big milestone for energy revolution. To many, the reports are highly positive news; to others, there are causes for alarm.

There are environmental risks involved if the world is to rely more on combustible ice. For one thing, some experts have warned that improper extraction processes, which could be rampant, could increase climate-changing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That, however, must not deter intensive efforts to research this kind of energy thoroughly. Combustible ice is said to be abundant enough to serve as a key energy source for up to hundreds of years.

Methane hydrate, as combustible ice is technically known, has been found beneath the seafloor and buried inside Arctic permafrost and beneath Antarctic ice.

The United States and India are also said to have research programmes aimed at creating technologies to capture the fuel. Extraction is reported to be very tricky, potentially environmentally harmful and highly expensive. In fact, the costs involved have discouraged previous efforts to tap up this source of energy.

Its abundance, though, is one big reason why the world is optimistic about the developments in China and Japan. Estimates of worldwide reserves of combustible ice range from 280 trillion cubic metres up to 2,800 trillion cubic metres, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

That is a lot bigger than natural gas reserves.

Total worldwide production of natural gas was 3.5 billion cubic metres in 2015.

Some experts can't see commercial-scale production of combustible ice just a few years from now, but China has already described its success as a major event in the world's "energy revolution." The Chinese optimism is not overstated, provided the rest of the world joins hands to find safe and cheapest extraction technologies.

As for the more immediate future, methane hydrate offers Japan the chance to reduce its heavy reliance of imported fuels if it can tap into reserves off its coastline. China, meanwhile, has had to depend a lot on coal-burning power plants and steel factories that have threatened many with lung-damaging smog.

World politics could change very significantly if combustible ice became a viable form of energy. Even without this, China is already pushing the United States hard in their race for world economic supremacy. Many academics studying conflicts in the South China Sea also see the growing value of combustible ice with considerable concern. Japan, meanwhile, could bounce back big time politically and economically.

International politics may hinder combustible ice from the research processes to possible commercialisation of it. To de-politicise this form of energy, especially if its value rises, might be easier said than done, but the world must try. Energy, after all, is not just for superpowers. Small countries and ordinary people can all benefit from relatively cleaner, cheaper and more abundant sources of energy. This simple fact about energy has been under the shadows of superpowers' politic plays for a long time, and the latest news about combustible ice has everyone asking a big question of whether that can change or not.

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