We already know that Alaska has vast energy reserves of oil and natural gas locked away in places that Congress dares not go — like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance. They also have a lot of snow and ice, and as it turns out, they have energy reserves there as well. Crystals known as hydrates buried in the permafrost of the North Slope may contain enough energy to heat 100 million homes for a decade, if extracted properly:
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, according to an assessment released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The study finds that 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. That’s enough to heat 100 million homes for as long as 10 years, 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,” Kempthorne said Wednesday.
Globally, “hydrates have more potential for energy than all other fossil fuels combined,” he said. “This can be a paradigm shift.”
If the hydrates can be extracted, it could provide another boom for Alaska’s energy industry. The pending natural-gas pipeline could transport the output from the hydrates just as it would for conventional natural gas. In fact, Alaska may take a back seat to the Gulf of Mexico, which also has a large amount of hydrates in cold-water regions and which already has natural-gas infrastructure to transport the final product.
Hydrates aren’t quite ready yet, however. The government has partnered with oil companies to develop extraction processes, but they have yet to test them. Researchers have to manufacture synthetic hydrates for testing in order to avoid the highly potent natural hydrates, which are by volume 164 times as powerful as natural gas. Producers in Alaska would prefer to go after conventional natural-gas deposits first, and environmentalists worry about the effect of mining on the permafrost as well as the release of methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
This seems to be very similar to oil shale in the natural-gas context. We know that we have decades of energy potential, locked into formations that we can’t quite access and which will be costlier than resources already at hand. It’s worth researching, but we can afford to go slow — as long as we can continue to access the conventional deposits we know exist already.