The Chikyu, which first set out in 2005, was initially intended to probe earthquake-generating zones in the planet’s mantle, a subject of obvious interest to seismically unstable Japan. Its present undertaking was, if possible, of even greater importance: trying to develop an energy source that could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.
Already the petroleum industry has been convulsed by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—a technique for shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing previously inaccessible oil, referred to as “tight oil.” Still more important, fracking releases natural gas, which, when yielded from shale, is known as shale gas. (Petroleum is a grab-bag term for all nonsolid hydrocarbon resources—oil of various types, natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on—that companies draw from beneath the Earth’s surface. The stuff that catches fire around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural gas, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has the same chemical makeup no matter what the source—ordinary petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate.) Fracking has been attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies, and may eventually be greatly restricted. But it has also unleashed so much petroleum in North America that the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based consortium of energy-consuming nations, predicted in November that by 2035, the United States will become “all but self-sufficient in net terms.” If the Chikyu researchers are successful, methane hydrate could have similar effects in Japan. And not just in Japan: China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Norway are looking to unlock these crystal cages, as are Canada and the United States.
Here I should confess to personal bias. Twelve years ago, a magazine asked me to write an article about energy supplies. While researching, I met petroleum geologists and engineers who told me about a still-experimental technique called hydraulic fracturing. Intrigued, I asked several prominent energy pundits about it. All scoffed at the notion that it would pay off. To be fair, some early fracking research was outlandish; three early trials involved setting off atomic weapons underground (they did produce natural gas, but it was radioactive). I don’t want to embarrass anyone I spoke with. I failed to exercise independent judgment, and did not mention hydraulic fracturing in my article, so I was just as mistaken. But I also don’t want to miss the boat again. Even though plenty of experts discount methane hydrate, I now am more inclined to pay attention to the geologists and engineers who foresee a second, fracking-type revolution with it, a revolution that—unlike the shale-gas rush, mostly a North American phenomenon—will ripple across the globe.
The author provides great insights, but remains fixated on "climate change" as a boogeyman that must be conquered. Given the 15+ year "pause" in warming and the current coldest spring in 75 years, one would think the Orwellian phrase, "climate change" would be falling out of favor. But apparently not.
James L. Salmon, Esq.
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Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
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