Arctic Gas Project With Japan Off to Fast Start

The Energy Department on Wednesday announced that it has completed a successful test of technology to extract natural gas from methane hydrates found in Alaska's North Slope, kicking off a new joint research effort with Japan aimed at producing more gas from ice-bound formations in the Arctic.

The initiative is the result of a collaboration between the Energy Department, ConocoPhillips, and the Japanese government, which is interested in U.S. natural-gas exports as it works to scale down its nuclear energy program in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown last year. The administration, partnering with industry and the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation, has said that it will make $6.5 million available this year for further research in this area and is requesting an additional $5 million for the efforts next year.

The administration's announcement is a sign that it is serious about producing and exporting gas from still-untapped reserves in Alaska. "While this is just the beginning, this research could potentially yield significant new supplies of natural gas," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement on Wednesday.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that methane hydrates buried beneath Alaska's North Slope may contain about 85.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — an amount that could heat more than 100 million average homes for more than a decade. On top of that, the amount of methane stored in hydrate deposits globally could contain more than twice as much energy as all other fossil-fuel resources combined, according to USGS estimates.

The Energy Department's successful test of technology that can be used to extract these resources is a significant milestone not only for Alaska, but for the administration, which has been promoting an "all of the above" strategy for increasing U.S. energy independence.

Moving forward, the Energy Department has said that it is launching a research effort aimed at evaluating gas hydrate production technologies "with the eventual goal of making sustained production economically viable."

The test, which ran from February to April, involved the injection of a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen into the ice-like formation "and demonstrated that this mixture could promote the production of natural gas," according to the Energy Department. In addition to studying the technology as a means of extracting natural gas, the administration is looking into whether carbon dioxide can simultaneously be stored in these methane-hydrate formations.

Although this research effort could take years, the Energy Department has likened it to the shale-gas research in the 1970s and 1980s that set the foundation for the natural-gas boom today.

This ongoing research and development is sure to get a nod of approval from Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who discussed providing a stable supply of natural gas from her home state to Japan with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at a dinner on Monday hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Alaska's gas is the perfect fit to meet Japan's energy needs," Murkowski said in a statement on Tuesday, noting that Alaska's resources could help replace Japan's nuclear power generation after its devastating accident last year.

"Japan is hoping to switch a major portion of its power generation to natural gas, but it lacks an affordable and reliable source for that gas. That presents a unique opportunity for Alaska, which has long been rich in resources but short on markets," Murkowski said. "We need to move quickly to seize this opportunity and ensure that Alaska's gas is the energy of choice for Japan."

According to her office, Murkowski is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with the acting secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan to discuss the benefits of Alaska's North Slope gas for the Japanese.