DOE to Push Development of Huge Potential Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Department of Energy and the Alaskan Government are speeding up development of oil sands and methane hydrates.

Many environmentalists are protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline because it would help facilitate the delivery of oil from Canada’s oil sands and, they argue, increase carbon dioxide emissions. They may have more reason to worry about what’s happening in Alaska. The state’s Department of Natural Resources is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Energy to speed up production of natural gas from a resource—methane hydrate deposits–that’s far larger than the oil sands in Canada, and could in theory lead to far greater greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane hydrates are essentially a frozen form of natural gas. According to a press release from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, “methane hydrates represent a potentially enormous energy resource, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels.”

Yet to protest either the development of methane hydrates or the construction of the Keystone pipeline may be a poor strategy for actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Arguably, the Canadian oil sands will be developed whether or not the Keystone pipeline gets built. And the sheer size of the methane hydrate resource has made it the subject of research outside of the United States—shutting off development here won’t stop it everywhere (see “Will Methane Hydrates Fuel Another Gas Boom?” and “Mining ‘Ice That Burns’”). In general, people will get at and use whatever energy sources make economic sense.

The only way to keep methane hydrates in the ground is for other sources of energy to make more economic sense. Doing that would require research to make sources like nuclear power cheaper, and likely taxing carbon emissions to make sources like methane more expensive.