Japan – wealthy, technologically advanced, but lacking natural resources – has been looking for solutions to its energy problem amid the understandable post-Fukushima anti-nuclear backlash.

Reliance on imported fossil fuels, which increased significantly after the Fukushima disaster, is of course not seen as sustainable in economic or environmental terms. In the year following Fukushima, Japan had a 30% power deficit after shutting down nearly all of its nuclear power plants. The population coped admirably through energy-saving measures, yet 54 offline power stations leave a huge deficit that cannot be made up for simply by turning off air conditioners and buying efficient light bulbs. Japan looked to sustainable sources and passed an ambitious environmental plan. But how much the new government will follow that plan is unclear.

Frozen methane slush, anyone?

Methane hydrate. Pic: Wusel007 (Wikimedia Commons)

What Japan has managed to do is extract frozen liquid natural gas from permafrost on the ocean floor some 80 km (50 mi) offshore. Frozen methane hydrate contains 164x the energy as conventional natural gas. Off-shore deposits could make Japan self-sufficient in energy for 100 years. But there are problems. It’s expensive and (you guessed it) environmentally dangerous.

From the New Scientist:

In the current tests, the gas is being burned off. Today’s success in producing a steady flow is promising for future commercial production, which could start as early as 2018. But a number of environmental challenges remain before large-scale extraction could begin. Removing crystallised methane from the sea floor could destabilise the seabed and cause landslides. And if methane escapes from the deep well in the Nankai trough, it will dissolve in the water and acidify the local area, potentially harming ocean life.

So Japan may have opened up a new chapter in the global “dash for gas” which has manifested most strongly in the United States with the now widespread, albeit still controversial, practice of hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking”.

There are also concerns about methane as a greenhouse gas. The burning of methane is about twice as clean as the other chief fossil fuels, oil and coal. Yet methane itself has a 20x more powerful climate forcing effect than CO2 when released directly into the atmosphere, but its effects are short-lived, about 12 years compared to 100-500 years for CO2.

From the New York Times:

It is unclear how much the tapping of methane hydrate would affect Japan’s emissions or global warming. On one hand, natural gas would provide a cleaner alternative to coal, which still provides Japan with a fifth of its primary energy needs. But new energy sources could also prompt Japan to slow its development of renewable energies or green technologies, hurting its emissions in the long run. Any accidental release of large amounts of methane during the extraction process would also be harmful.

Methane leaking through cracks in Arctic Ocean, pic: NASA Earth Observatory