Sunday, September 04, 2005

The El Dorado of the Gas Industry

Gas Hydrates are a huge potential source of energy for the future. In fact they are so huge that a country having access to just one percent of the gas from hydrates would make all gas-rich countries of today look like ants. The catch is in extracting it, and India is certainly at the forefront of research in this direction.

Quick Introduction

First, what are gas hydrates? Hydrates are essentially a union of water with some other substance, which results in a nuetral body - often solid like certain crystallized salts. So methane gas hydrates are essentially ice with gas trapped in between. The density of methane is so high that they are referred to as frozen methane - in fact one cubic meter of methane hydrate contains 164 cubic meters of the gas.

How much gas do hydrates hold?

Methane gas hydrates worldwide have been estimated to hold some 400 million tcf (trillion cubic feet) of gas. To put that into perpective, the huge GSPC find in the K-G Basin, Deen Dayal, holds between 20-40 tcf. Worldwide all known natural gas reserves total some 5000 tcf. That means hydrates hold 80,000 times as much gas as natural gas reserves.

While the regions under ice cap contain the richest concentrations of hydrates, India is not unblessed either, as hydrates occur in several marine settings around the world. In fact ONGC and Reliance are finding hydrate blocks a hindrance to their drilling activities in the K-G Basin. In fact India is estimated to have gas hydrate reserves of around 1,894 trillion cubic metres (67,000 tcf).

Can methane be extracted from hydrates?
In late 2003 an international research program including India, the US, Japan and Canada demonstrated for the first time that it was technically feasible to extract gas from frozen gas hydrates. The consortium conducted test drilling at a site called Mallik in the Mackenzie Delta in the Canadian Arctic. The site is located in an area known to have one of the highest concentrations of gas hydrates in the world.

Russia is already extracting gas from hydrates but its method is probably not viable enough in most other places of the world.

Where do we go from here?

Hydrates are not quite there, and few expect commercialization before another decade and a half. However research goes on. The recent US Energy Bill supports funding for research in this field. This should boost efforts from BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. who have been interested in gas from the Alaska hydrates.

The Indian Initiative

India has a National Gas Hydrates Programme (under the oil ministry) which helps coordinate the efforts of the various agencies involved in this effort. This includes the public sector gas giants like ONGC and GAIL, as well as government departments like the Department of Ocean Development (DOD) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).

Bouyed by its experience from Mallik, India has plans to drill two deep sea wells for extracting gas from methane hydrates. The sites are yet to be finalized but action is taking place in the right direction.