December 2008

Alaska finds more energy ... about a trillion dollars more

The new Alaska pipeline may have even more product to carry than originally planned, according to an assessment released in November by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Frozen crystals packed with concentrated natural gas and buried 2,000 feet below the permafrost on Alaska's North Slope could become the next major domestic energy source says the report.

The study finds in the North Slope, frozen methane-and-water crystals known as hydrates contain as much as 85.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

Natural gas wholesales for about one cent per cubic foot, and the price when it enters a users home is 50-to-300% higher. That is enough to heat 100 million homes for as long as 10 years, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.

New research into how to extract those resources has moved the possibility of recovering the usable energy from the realm of "science and speculation" to that of the "actual and useful."

Government research is beginning to show it may be possible to extract hydrates using depressurization, a technique used to get at more conventional fuel sources.

Simply boring into the ground may be enough to change the pressure to extract it, said Steve Rinehart, a representative for British Petroleum in Alaska. Alternatively, pumping could also change the pressure.

Gas hydrates exist all over the world, including offshore, but a combination of cold and pressure makes them especially prevalent in the Arctic, where there is also an existing oil and gas infrastructure to study them.

The U.S. Department of Energy describes them as "ice-like solids that result from the trapping of methane molecules within a lattice-like cage of water molecules."

Hydrates release gaseous methane-the main component of natural gas-when they melt.

Two of the biggest North Slope producers, ConocoPhillips and BP, have been involved in some of the government studies. ConocoPhillips has largely been researching whether it is possible to inject carbon dioxide into wells to replace the hydrates. That also would allow the carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to reside in the wells rather than the atmosphere.

BP participated in government studies last year that drilled for core samples of hydrates. So far, there have been no tests of producing hydrates as commercially viable natural gas. That is next, but BP and ConocoPhillips remain skeptical. There are tremendous conventional natural-gas deposits in Alaska to consider first, Rinehart said.

Other countries that import most of their fuel, including Japan and India, have been aggressively pursuing their own hydrate potential.

The possibility of recovering natural-gas hydrates in Alaska also could add to the usefulness and potential life span of a planned natural-gas pipeline that would send more conventional sources of natural gas from the North Slope to markets in the lower 48 states.

New Alaskan pipeline a sure boon to state and automation sector: Read more at www.isa.org/InTech/20080802.