Monday, July 24, 2006

It's all Gas!

As I mentioned in my recent posting "Gas - Fraught Lines of Territory" increasingly poor relations between Moscow and Washington look set to keep the U.S. out of the rich new gas field in the Barents Sea. President Putin looks set to favour bids from Norwegian companies while rejecting those from such U.S. oil giants as Chevron and ConocoPhillips, in the aftermath of the U.S. failing to support Russia's attempt to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Arctic reserves of gas are estimated at 3,600 billion cubic metres, which exceeds the known existing Russian reserves of 3,169 billion cubic metres. Russia's antipathy toward the U.S. concerning the Barents Sea gas field deepened following some remarks from vice President Dick Cheney's to the effect that Moscow was playing power politics with its natural resources, and that oil and gas must not be turned into intimidation or blackmail. The putative WTO membership looks to be another pawn in the new power game.
The snub will come as a blow to those U.S. companies who are banking on getting access to Russia's huge gas reserves in a time of high energy prices. Presidents Bush and Putin were "barbed" in their comments about each other's democratic records during a G8 conference, and afterwards, Putin spoke highly of Norsk Hydro and Statoil, who are the Norwegian firms competing with U.S. companies for a slice of the Shtokman gas field. Apparently, President Putin was hoping to wrap-up the WTO membership issue in time for the G8 summit in St Petersberg, and its lack of resolution has come as a blow to his prestige.
This is not the only problem threatening over gas - we could end up with rather too much of it, according to Dr Ira Leifer, who is a marine scientist working at the University of California Santa Barbara. Leifer is the corresponding author of a study of "peak blowouts" of undersea formations called "methane hydrates" (see previous posting: "Methane Gas Hydrates - vast energy resource or ecological disaster awaiting") which if they melt could release large quantities of the potent greenhouse gas, methane into the atmosphere. Methane hydrate is distributed over the world in huge quantities and energy companies hope that they may one day come up with the technology to tap this resource, which according to the U.S. Department of Energy might contain 200,000 trillion cubic feet (5,700 cubic metres) of natural gas. To place this in context, the entire Arctic reserves of natural gas amount to just 3.6 trillion cubic metres or 0.06%! However, actually extracting the gas from gas-hydrate is still a pipe dream and may well stay that way, whereas the Arctic field is tantalisingly close at hand.
Leifer thinks that warming surface waters could eventually warm the ocean depths where the hydrates are, and this could cause the gas to be released. It is speculated that the geological Permian-Triassic (P-T or PT) extinction event, known colloquially as the Great Dying, which extinguished 96% of marine species and 70% of land animals about 251 million years ago, may have been caused by the sudden release of vast amounts of methane, leaving fungal species as the dominant global lifeform. Could it happen again?
However we get our methane, so long as we burn it (even if we convert it into gasoline or aviation fuel first and then burn it) we will emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Each and every one of us has our own "carbon footprint", according to how much energy is consumed by our individual lifestyle. To whit, the Environment Minister David Milliband has unveiled a radical plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by charging individuals for the amount of carbon they emit. The idea is that consumers would carry bank cards that recorded our personal carbon usage. Those who use the most energy, running big cars and flying off to the Sun, would have to buy more carbon points, and those who live in rather more "green" ways - without cars or using solar energy etc. - would be able to sell on their carbon points for cash. Under the scheme everyone, including Her Majesty The Queen, and on downwards would be allocated an identical carbon allowance stored as points on an electronic card similar to Air Miles (bad example!) or supermarket loyalty cards. It is seen as an extension of carbon trading.
However, it does little to cut down on carbon use and carbon emissions overall. As a planet we are consuming around three times the total resource that can be maintained. Perhaps carbon points will become increasingly expensive as carbon based "oil" and "gas" becomes harder to procure, and an economic driver will come to hand. Our carbon based fuels and industrial feedstocks must inevitably increase in cost as we continually reach in to spoon more of their dwindling reserves. Something will have to "give" eventually, but I'm not convinced that individual "carbon credits" are a means to that end, beyond creating some form of rationing system - and that has sinister connotations of social control.

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