Energy research must continue

Wednesday November 14, 2012

Given all of the unrest in oil-producing nations around the world there has been a lot of talk about the need for the United States to be more energy independent, and as such much attention has been paid in recent years to natural gas.

With the boom in production from hydraulic fracturing, the United States is awash in natural gas for the near future and is considering exporting it, but the U.S. Department of Energy wants to be ready for the next big energy source if there's a need. Researchers in Alaska believe they have found it -- methane hydrate. The U.S. Energy Department describes methane hydrate as a lattice of ice that traps methane molecules but does not bind them chemically. They are released when warmed or depressurized.

The world has a lot of methane hydrate, according to an Associated Press report. A Minerals Management Service study in 2008 estimated methane hydrate resources in the northern Gulf of Mexico at 21,000 trillion cubic feet, or 100 times current U.S. reserves of natural gas. The combined energy content of methane hydrate may exceed all other known fossil fuels, according to the DOE.

This new energy source does not come without concerns, however. Most deposits are below the sea floor off the continental shelf or under permafrost. Shallow pockets of methane hydrate release the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere and that process is exacerbated by climate warming.

Furthermore, methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, though not as long-lived. Even if methane is extracted safely, burning it will add to climate warming, Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity told the AP. He said research money should be poured into renewable resources, not more fossil fuel sources.

But as we know here in New England, even renewable energy sources like wind farms are facing strong opposition. From the mountain ridgelines of Vermont to the coastal areas of Maine and Massachusetts, wind farm opponents object to the environmental damage caused by installation of the huge turbines, the ruined vistas once they are put in place and the reports of deafening noise from their operation.

We can't win. It seems like with every potential energy source there are groups out there that will argue against their use. Some even argue that seeking a replacement to oil is a waste of time altogether because current technology for these alternate sources is not enough to replace our thirst for the black gold.

That's no reason to give up trying on any of these alternatives, however. The scientific breakthrough we're looking for may be just around the corner. And there are two undeniable facts we must face up to: Oil is a finite resource that will be used up one day, and despite all of our best conservation efforts, the human appetite for energy consumption is not finite.


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