News and Features

Oil, oil everywhere: methane hydrates, the Philippines, and the future


World methane hydrate deposits, prospective and confirmed (The Atlantic)

This article from The Atlantic is two weeks old, but it’s worth reading, especially if the Luzon-wide blackout yesterday’s got you thinking about the future of our country’s energy supply.

So to avoid future outages and sustain our breakneck rates of economic growth, where do we source the energy needed by an ever-growing and increasingly ravenous economy like ours? If we go by the article, thanks to new technology, we may yet be able to exploit a long-dormant energy source that is just under the waves:

“In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gasmethane 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.”

A burning sample of methane hydrate (The Japan Times)

A burning sample of methane hydrate (The Japan Times)

“Ice you can set on fire! Who could take it seriously?

It may seem like industry hype, and the article does offer a lot of caveats: only Japan so far has been able to exploit these deposits since the world started research on this in the 80s, and all the research is centered on advanced economies. Still the idea of an energy independent Philippines does sound highly appealing. Yet as the article cautions, energy independence isn’t necessarily a good thing. Cutting off the extensive economic links that tie petroleum-importing economies like Japan, China, and the Philippines to petroleum-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela in a complex web of interdependence could have dire consequences for global politics:

“Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail.How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry…”

It gets even more complicated. When they said you could find methane hydrates under the sea, they didn’t just mean any sea:

Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. ‘One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.’ Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia (!).

A quick look at the map above (also featured in the article) illustrates the author’s point. Methane hydrate deposits can be found in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea area (though for now these are closer to China than to us), and possibly in the Celebes Sea to the south of Mindanao. So we have at least one deposit that we can leverage into energy sufficiency.

A few questions then:

  1. If the potentials are proven and the technology is sound, how might the Philippines be able to benefit from a hydrate boom?
  2. Will current geopolitical considerations (such as China’s territorial dispute with other maritime nations like Japan and the Philippines) influence the spread of the technology required to exploit methane hydates?
  3. How should our energy planners and the private sector plan for the possible exploitation of this energy source?

The rest of the article’s filled with context and more information about another controversial energy technology (fracking), so you should definitely check it out.

About the author

Michael V. Manangu is a politics and policy researcher, aspiring academic, and lead author for The Daily Opium. When he’s not trawling bookstores and the Web for awesome reads, you can find him walking the planes (read: playing Magic: the Gathering) and plotting the downfall of kings in historical strategy games.