What If We Never Run Out of Oil?

New technology and a little-known energy source suggest that fossil fuels may not be finite. This would be a miracle—and a nightmare.
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As the great research ship Chikyu left Shimizu in January to mine the explosive ice beneath the Philippine Sea, chances are good that not one of the scientists aboard realized they might be closing the door on Winston Churchill’s world. Their lack of knowledge is unsurprising; beyond the ranks of petroleum-industry historians, Churchill’s outsize role in the history of energy is insufficiently appreciated.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. With characteristic vigor and verve, he set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. The revamped fleet, he proclaimed, should be fueled with oil, rather than coal—a decision that continues to reverberate in the present. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. Because of this greater energy density, oil could push ships faster and farther than coal could.

Churchill’s proposal led to emphatic dispute. The United Kingdom had lots of coal but next to no oil. At the time, the United States produced almost two-thirds of the world’s petroleum; Russia produced another fifth. Both were allies of Great Britain. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy about the prospect of the Navy’s falling under the thumb of foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” Spurred by the Admiralty, the U.K. soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia). The concessions’ terms were so unpopular in Iran that they helped spark a revolution. London worked to suppress it. Then, to prevent further disruptions, Britain enmeshed itself ever more deeply in the Middle East, working to install new shahs in Iran and carve Iraq out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

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Churchill fired the starting gun, but all of the Western powers joined the race to control Middle Eastern oil. Britain clawed past France, Germany, and the Netherlands, only to be overtaken by the United States, which secured oil concessions in Turkey, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The struggle created a long-lasting intercontinental snarl of need and resentment. Even as oil-consuming nations intervened in the affairs of oil-producing nations, they seethed at their powerlessness; oil producers exacted huge sums from oil consumers but chafed at having to submit to them. Decades of turmoil—oil shocks in 1973 and 1979, failed programs for “energy independence,” two wars in Iraq—have left unchanged this fundamental, Churchillian dynamic, a toxic mash of anger and dependence that often seems as basic to global relations as the rotation of the sun.

All of this was called into question by the voyage of the Chikyu (“Earth”), a $540 million Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel that looks like a billionaire’s yacht with a 30-story oil derrick screwed into its back. The Chikyu, a floating barrage of superlatives, is the biggest, glitziest, most sophisticated research vessel ever constructed, and surely the only one with a landing pad for a 30-person helicopter. The central derrick houses an enormous floating drill with a six-mile “string” that has let the Chikyu delve deeper beneath the ocean floor than any other ship.

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.

In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas—methane hydrate, in the jargon—beneath the seafloor. Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined. Despite its plenitude, gas hydrate was long subject to petroleum-industry skepticism. These deposits—water molecules laced into frigid cages that trap “guest molecules” of natural gas—are strikingly unlike conventional energy reserves. Ice you can set on fire! Who could take it seriously? But as petroleum prices soared, undersea-drilling technology improved, and geological surveys accumulated, interest rose around the world. The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a methane-hydrate research program since 1982.


 


Nowhere has the interest been more serious than Japan. Unlike Britain and the United States, the Japanese failed to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers” of any significant amount of oil. (Not that Tokyo didn’t try: it bombed Pearl Harbor mainly to prevent the U.S. from blocking its attempted conquest of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.) Today, Churchill’s nightmare has come true for Japan: it is a military and industrial power almost wholly dependent on foreign energy. It is the world’s third-biggest net importer of crude oil, the second-biggest importer of coal, and the biggest importer of liquefied natural gas. Not once has a Japanese politician expressed happiness at this state of affairs.

Japan’s methane-hydrate program began in 1995. Its scientists quickly focused on the Nankai Trough, about 200 miles southwest of Tokyo, an undersea earthquake zone where two pieces of the Earth’s crust jostle each other. Step by step, year by year, a state-owned enterprise now called the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) dug test wells, made measurements, and obtained samples of the hydrate deposits: 130-foot layers of sand and silt, loosely held together by methane-rich ice. The work was careful, slow, orderly, painstakingly analytical—the kind of process that seems intended to snuff out excited newspaper headlines. But it progressed with the same remorselessness that in the 1960s and ’70s had transformed offshore oil wells from Waterworld-style exoticisms to mainstays of the world economy.

In January, 18 years after the Japanese program began, the Chikyu left the Port of Shimizu, midway up the main island’s eastern coastline, to begin a “production” test—an attempt to harvest usefully large volumes of gas, rather than laboratory samples. Many questions remained to be answered, the project director, Koji Yamamoto, told me before the launch. JOGMEC hadn’t figured out the best way to mine hydrate, or how to ship the resultant natural gas to shore. Costs needed to be brought down. “It will not be ready for 10 years,” Yamamoto said. “But I believe it will be ready.” What would happen then, he allowed, would be “interesting.”

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.

Not everyone thinks JOGMEC will succeed. But methane hydrate is being developed in much the same methodical way that shale gas was developed before it, except by a bigger, more international group of researchers. Shale gas, too, was subject to skepticism wide and loud. The egg on naysayers’ faces suggests that it would be foolish to ignore the prospects for methane hydrate—and more foolish still not to consider the potential consequences.

If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Unless oil states are exceptionally well run, a gush of petroleum revenues can actually weaken their economies by crowding out other business. Worse, most oil nations are so corrupt that social scientists argue over whether there is an inherent bond—a “resource curse”—between big petroleum deposits and political malfeasance. It seems safe to say that few Americans would be upset if a plunge in demand eliminated these countries’ hold over the U.S. economy. But those same people might not relish the global instability—a belt of financial and political turmoil from Venezuela to Turkmenistan—that their collapse could well unleash.

On a broader level still, cheap, plentiful natural gas throws a wrench into efforts to combat climate change. Avoiding the worst effects of climate change, scientists increasingly believe, will require “a complete phase-out of carbon emissions … over 50 years,” in the words of one widely touted scientific estimate that appeared in January. A big, necessary step toward that goal is moving away from coal, still the second-most-important energy source worldwide. Natural gas burns so much cleaner than coal that converting power plants from coal to gas—a switch promoted by the deluge of gas from fracking—has already reduced U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to their lowest levels since Newt Gingrich’s heyday.

Yet natural gas isn’t that clean; burning it produces carbon dioxide. Researchers view it as a temporary “bridge fuel,” something that can power nations while they make the transition away from oil and coal. But if societies do not take advantage of that bridge to enact anti-carbon policies, says Michael Levi, the director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, natural gas could be “a bridge from the coal-fired past to the coal-fired future.”

“Methane hydrate could be a new energy revolution,” Christopher Knittel, a professor of energy economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. “It could help the world while we reduce greenhouse gases. Or it could undermine the economic rationale for investing in renewable, carbon-free energy around the world”—just as abundant shale gas from fracking has already begun to undermine it in the United States. “The one path is a boon. The other—I’ve used words like catastrophe.” He paused; I thought I detected a sigh. “I wouldn’t bet on us making the right decisions.”

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Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

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