Buried Treasure


Gauging the (natural) gasSay "hi" to hydrateFreezing, but not coldUsing hydrateWarming worries




























Global energy consumption is expected to grow 60 percent by 2020 over 1997, from 380 quadrillion BTUs to 608 quadrillion BTUs. One barrel of oil supplies about 5.8 million BTUs.

U.S. Energy Information Administration














Globally, natural gas consumption is expected to more than double by 2020. Is this increase sustainable with present supplies?
U.S. Energy Information Administration





















More than half the Earth's organic carbon is found in gas hydrates

Courtesy USGS.


This article won the 2001 Science in Society writing award from the National Association of Science Writers, and the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Energy crisis III?
5 Oct 2000 With the price of energy heading north and winter heading into the Northern Hemispheric, President Clinton has uncorked the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. While he hopes spilling 30 million barrels of oil will ease the price spiral, other politicians want to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Gas jockeys with a  -Sorry no gasoline-sign stand next to a gas pump.
Survived Energy Crisis I? Then you must remember this: In 1973, in Oregon, price was no object: this gas station had nothing to sell. The twin energy shocks of the 1970s shook the American economy and lead to dramatic sales of [the horror, the horror!] small, efficient cars. Read about alternative auto engines.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.


For the first time in decades, OPEC leaders are not just talking tough, but actually tightening the valves on their pipelines. The soaring energy prices, however, don't reflect just OPEC's machinations, but also the hallowed relationship between supply and demand.

World energy consumption is booming. In 1997, the planet used 73 million barrels of oil daily. That's projected to balloon to 113 million barrels by 2020.

Against these numbers, the Strategic Reserve will supply literally a drop in the barrel. Don't reach for your calculator: We did the math: 30 million barrels would have fed the 1997 market for 9 hours and 52 minutes. At today's level of consumption, it would be turned into carbon dioxide even quicker. While crude's price of more than $30 per barrel is not a record in real dollars, the energy future looks grim enough:

New discoveries are not keeping pace with consumption because the supply of oil is not infinite.

Saudi Arabia just increased production, but few other oil suppliers have spare capacity or willingness to undercut prices.

World crude oil reserves hit a 24-year low in August.

Heating oil reserves on the U.S. East Coast are about half of last year's level.

The price of natural gas, a clean fuel that's preferred for new electric generators and many other purposes, doubled in the past year.

Didn't hear about the looming energy crisis? Musta missed A Crude Story. Or jump directly to our explanation of where oil originates.

Graph shows consumption increase.Told you so
With little notice, it seems the planet is headed for another energy crisis. This one, unlike the previous two, was triggered not by politics but by economics and simple limits on the supply of oil and gas.

While optimists say a higher price will wring new supplies out of the sedimentary rock, pessimists are busy rubbing oil into the wound. "Governments understand that we're approaching the time of a permanent era of decline of conventional fossil fuel production," says Roger Sassen, deputy director for resource geosciences at Texas A&M University. "I've never seen it in the newspapers. Dan Rather could not imagine that basically nobody has found any super-large oil or gas fields in decades." Even the "glitz" about discoveries in the Caspian Sea is "all fluff," he says.

A second distinction from the previous energy crises is the paucity of interest in energy alternatives. The crises of the 1970s taught that technologies like high-mileage cars could actually cut fossil fuels consumption. Indeed, as The New York Times maintains, "the demand side of the energy equation is as important, if not more so, than the supply side" (see "The Politics of Fuel" in the bibliography).

Methane on the rocks -- more than hot air?
Consumption was 82 trillion cubic feet in 1997, and may reach 167 tcf by 2020.But let's ignore conservation and follow the herd by obsessing about energy supply. Have you heard about the brightest spot on the fossil-fuel horizon -- gas hydrates? Within the past two years, the energy industry has been bubbling about this new source of natural gas that could -- conceivably -- solve every energy problem except global warming.

The new source, called gas hydrate or methane hydrate, is molecules of natural gas trapped inside crystals of frozen water -- ice. Gas stores compactly inside ice, and estimates of gas hydrate are breathtaking. Beneath permafrost alone, the resource ranges from 5,000 to 12 million trillion cubic feet (tcf).

For comparison, the United States uses about 22 tcf of natural gas per year, and the global gas resource is about 13,000 tcf. (In geo-speak, "resource" is the amount of a material thought to exist in the Earth; "reserves" can be economically extracted at present. Higher prices make it feasible to spend more for extraction, so reserves in the ground -- not to be confused with reserves in tanks and ships -- reflects the price of the commodity.)

The real bonanza, however, is under the ocean, with a wild estimate ranging from 30,000 to 49 million tcf.

Enough is enough!
Add it up, and the gas hydrate resource could exceed 60 million trillion cubic feet of gas -- almost 5,000 times the conventional natural gas resource. That number is also 730,000 times annual gas consumption for the globe -- which equaled 82 tcf in 1998.

Gas hydrate has 10,000 gigatons of organic carbon, while fossil fuels have half that amount. Soil, life, peat and rot on Earth contain "only" 2,790 gigatons of organic carbon.
In terms of carbon, gas hydrates seem twice as massive as all other fossil fuels -- coal, gas and oil -- combined. And while nobody suggests all this stuff could be extracted at a reasonable price, even a tiny percentage could make a big difference in our energy future.

With little notice outside the oil patch, gas hydrates have grabbed the attention of fossil-fuel analysts. "I know, oil companies know, governments know that [today's oil and gas] game will be over in 20 to 30 years," says Sassen, who directed geochemical research for three major oil companies. "If you going to change the planetary infrastructure before the lights go out, you've got to start thinking about gas hydrates now."

Why the big deal now?


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