The extraction of industrial quantities of natural gas from underground sources of methane hydrate in Japan has raised concern among environmentalists that it might wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.
According to a report in the Times, a state-backed drilling company managed to extract industrial quantities of natural gas from underground sources of methane hydrate - a form of gas-rich ice once thought to exist only on the moons of Saturn.
AdvertisementIn fact, the seabeds around the Japanese coast turn out to conceal massive deposits of the elusive sorbet-like compound in their depths.
Using this source, Japan would have energy reserves containing 100 years' fuel.
Critically for Japan, which imports 99.7 per cent of the oil, gas and coal needed to run its vast economy, the lumps of energy-filled ice offer the tantalising promise of a little energy independence.
The potential of methane hydrates as a source of natural gas has been known scientifically for some time, though how much was lurking off the Japanese coast has been confirmed only in the past couple of years.
Methane hydrates are believed to collect along geological fault lines, and Japan sits atop a nexus of three of the world's largest.
But, environmentalists are appalled by the idea of releasing huge quantities of methane from under the seabeds.
Although methane is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal or oil, the as yet untapped methane hydrates represent "captured" greenhouse gasses that some believe should remain locked under the sea.
Also, the mining of methane ice could wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.
In 2007 the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry declared that there were more than 1.1 trillion cubic metres (39 trillion cubic feet) of methane hydrates off the eastern coast - equivalent to 14 years of natural gas use by Japan at current rates.
The Japanese Government is so excited at the prospect of even modest relief from its energy problems that it has drawn up a basic policy for ocean-related extractions.
It may also licence the technology to allow China, South Korea and other nations thought to have large methane ice deposits off their coasts to unleash the potential of the flammable sorbet.
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