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More than 30 years ago, DOE looked into the future and saw the potentially large benefit of developing promising but difficult-to-extract unconventional natural gas resources, particularly those from shale formations.  As a result, it began sponsoring research and development (R&D), partnering with industry and academia, and, among other things, invested about $137 million in the Eastern Gas Shale Program between 1978 and 1992. 

Combined with initiatives and efforts within industry, the Gas Technology Institute and by others, DOE activities were pivotal in developing and demonstrating many of the technologies that are now cornerstones of rapid shale resource development that is currently transforming America’s energy landscape.  One outgrowth of this is that the U.S. is now the world’s number one natural gas producer, and is poised to become a net exporter of this important energy resource by 2018.

Today, DOE R&D is again looking into the future, at a different, but potentially vast energy resource that – like shale gas – might someday play an important role for the U.S. and the world.  The focus this time is on methane hydrate – molecules of natural gas trapped in ice crystals.  Gas hydrates can exist in abundance wherever methane occurs in the presence of water, along with a unique combination of cold temperature and elevated pressure.  Because these conditions commonly exist around the world, in areas of Arctic permafrost and in shallow sediments on continental margins where water depth is 1,500 feet or more, global in-place volumes of methane in hydrate form are astronomical – on the order of 250,000 trillion to 700,000 trillion cubic feet.

Only a small portion of this enormous resource is likely to be recovered as energy.  But the potential impact on future supplies is promising enough to have prompted a variety of innovative R&D by the Office of Fossil Energy (FE) since the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000 designated DOE as the lead U.S. agency for research in this area.

Just 10 years ago, methane hydrate was widely considered to be a highly-speculative, poorly-constrained resource requiring development of exotic exploration and production approaches.  So DOE began focusing on areas where significant challenges and questions were present. 

One outgrowth of the 2000 Act, reauthorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was creation of the Methane Hydrate Advisory Committee, a panel of up to 15 members representing institutions of higher education, industrial enterprises, oceanographic organizations, and state agencies.  This group advises the Secretary of Energy on potential applications of methane hydrate and assists in developing recommendations and priorities for DOE gas hydrate R&D (see the committee’s website). 

Early phases of DOE research successfully addressed industry concerns about the safety of drilling through deepwater gas hydrates.  Progress continued during the past decade, as FE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) worked with federal agency partners, and an international industry consortium led by Chevron, to develop the tools and technologies to successfully locate those unique gas hydrate accumulations that are the most amenable to production.  This process was then demonstrated by drilling seven targets in the Gulf of Mexico and finding resource-grade occurrences in four wells and conditions that matched pre-drill predictions in the other three wells.

In partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and two Alaska North Slope operators – BP and ConocoPhillips – NETL has worked to gather the field data necessary to define the most promising technologies for gas hydrate production.  In order to better understand gas hydrate’s role in the natural environment, including its potential response to future changing climate, NETL has also collaborated with academia, USGS, and other DOE national laboratories to gather field data in climate sensitive areas, and conducted the first forward climate modeling that incorporates potential gas hydrate feedbacks.  DOE’s activities in these areas have catapulted it to an international leadership position in the field, and an active collaboration is maintained with researchers from Japan (another world leader in gas hydrate R&D), Korea, India, Canada and other nations.

A major focus of DOE gas hydrate activity has been in Alaska.  In April 2013, DOE and Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (ADNR) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) confirming the need and interest in energy development and unconventional resource research and demonstration in Alaska’s Arctic region.  Building on previous but less formal collaborative efforts, the MOU gives both parties a framework for better communication about unconventional energy R&D. 

DOE’s ongoing work in Alaska includes regional modeling of life-cycle implications of gas hydrate development on the environment; ongoing reviews of gas hydrate occurrences on state lands; and an effort to assess gas hydrate occurrence and dynamics related to climate response and geo-hazards on the Beaufort Shelf.

Important R&D questions remain – including the role gas hydrates may play as an energy resource, potential geologic hazard, and factor in global climate.  DOE’s activities and initiatives have moved the needle closer to realizing the potential of this vast resource, but much more remains to be done.  DOE’s fiscal 2015 budget, with $15 million for conducting lab and field-based research in some of these areas, will provide a start in this regard.

Finally, DOE recently selected for award a new project that will significantly advance hydrate program goals.  The award to the University of Texas at Austin will help gain further insight into the nature, formation, occurrence and physical properties of hydrate bearing sediments, for the purpose of resource appraisal.  More information on the purpose, objectives and cost can be found at this Office of Fossil Energy Techline.