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Image of how methane hydrates can form in arctic and marine environments. | Illustration by the Energy Department.

Image of how methane hydrates can form in arctic and marine environments. | Illustration by the Energy Department.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a transformation going on in U.S. energy production.

Driven in large part by shale gas development -- which early Energy Department investments helped make possible -- and by the President’s all-of-the-above energy strategy to develop all of our domestic resources, like gas, oil, clean coal, renewables and nuclear, we’re making real progress reducing our reliance on foreign energy imports and securing our energy future.

A lot of the news coverage has understandably been on shale gas development, so you may not be aware of progress being made in another area: methane hydrate. Methane hydrate -- essentially molecules of natural gas trapped in ice crystals -- represents a potentially enormous energy resource, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other fossil fuels.

In 2000, Congress tapped the Energy Department to lead the national methane hydrate research and development program. Over the last several years, the Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has been conducting R&D focused on assessing the potential for gas hydrate production in deepwater marine settings, the location of the vast majority of global resources. In collaboration with its industry partners and the Japanese government, Energy Department researchers have conducted tests in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Slope of Alaska -- where the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has estimated a potentially recoverable resource of 85 trillion cubic feet of gas in favorable hydrate accumulation.

Last year, NETL and its partners conducted tests at a well on the North Slope, which focused on using carbon dioxide and nitrogen to release gas from methane hydrate. The results from that test yielded a wealth of information that’s currently be evaluated by researchers. The raw data includes the rates and composition of gases both injected and produced, and information on changes in the reservoir pressure and temperature during the test -- data that will be important as researchers move forward on hydrate technology.

This progress follows on the Department’s collaboration with its international partners, as well as with USGS, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other federal agencies, to advance methane hydrate technology. And like the early investments in shale gas R&D that helped make the shale gas boom possible, our early methane hydrate research and investment could have immense benefits down the road -- cleaner, cheaper gas; more jobs; and a more secure energy future.