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Thursday, September 4, 2008

THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT METHANE (Part 10)

The chemical nature of this book has thus far mostly dealt with hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, including carbon dioxide, CO2. The simplest fossil fuel is a gas, methane (CH4). Natural gas is mostly methane. When cows flatulate and burp, methane is produced as the primary gas. In fact, a State of California study reported that dairies were the number one source of San Joaquin Valley smog. Not necessarily tongue in check, with the respect to the Kyoto Protocol, it was suggested that reducing methane production made more economic sense than trying to limit carbon dioxide. Then there is the obvious uncontrollable: when forests decay, methane is naturally formed; when trees grow, they also produce methane. It’s really not all that easy to reduce the production of methane.

As a combination series of one carbon and two molecules of hydrogen are added to the compound, the gas becomes liquid, then a solid. Gasoline is essentially the liquid portion of this CH2 chain. All fossil fuels, when burned in air, produce CO2 and heat, plus, depending on the combustion temperature, nitrogen compounds, as the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. If there are contaminants, such as sulfur, in the fuel, also produced are oxides of sulfur, both of which can form acid rain.

While carbon dioxide is the current major target to combat global warming, most people don’t know that one molecule of methane is 20 to 62 times (depending on whether you compare on a molecular weight, mass, or whatever basis, and are able to include airborne lifetime) worse than one molecule of carbon dioxide in warming the Earth. The Report of the Methane Advisory Committee on Methane Hydrate Issues and Opportunities, a U.S. Department of Energy panel, says that methane is 23 times more effective at warming than an equivalent volume of carbon dioxide over a 100 year lifetime. However, methane is 62 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas over a 20 year period when there is an excess of this gas in the atmosphere. Further, if the infusion of methane is rapid, there would be very dangerous positive climatic feedback. This is the basis of The Venus Syndrome, my attempt to provide a two by four solution to influence decision-makers about the carbon tax.

In 1859 John Tyndall of Ireland showed that methane was like a plank of wood with regards to allowing heat rays to pass. As recently as 1948, though, methane was not even measured in the atmosphere because it was deemed as insignificant. Then in 1971 an authoritative study of climate ignored methane because it had “no direct effects on the climate or the biosphere.” In 1980 V. Ram Ramanathan, when he was with NASA, published a paper surmising that 40% of the total warming could be from the insignificant miscellaneous gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs. This led to CFCs being targeted as the culprit for the ozone hole and nitrogen and sulfur oxides as bad for smog and acid rain. But no one really took methane seriously, even when ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica revealed that methane, too, had risen and fallen in step with global temperatures.

My interest in methane actually started in 1979 when I served as the staff director in the U.S. Senate for the Hard Minerals Act, which formalized the national seabed mining program. I participated in interminable gatherings of the Law of Sea Treaty, and note that a quarter century after passage of the bill that the U.S. has not yet signed on, mostly because industry thinks doing so would unduly penalize American companies. If this sounds familiar, yes, the Kyoto Protocol on global climate warming is yet another treaty we have refused to sign because the private sector said no.

The Marine Minerals Technology Center of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, funded by the U.S. Department of Interior, served as the leading academic R&D organization of its type in the Pacific. Work on strategic metals languished, partly because of American attitudes and the unfavorable economics of such a venture, but the effort has recently picked up because of marine methane hydrates (MMH)

One of the resources at the bottom of the sea is MMH. In 1991, I joined a group of ocean experts in Berlin to write a book, entitled, Use and Misuse of the Ocean. I served on the chapter dealing with offshore hydrocarbons, chaired by Peter J. Cook, who at that time directed the British Geological Survey. We came up with a wild guess that the “marine gas hydrate layers could contain about twice as much reduced carbon as all other fossil-fuel reservoirs.” In reality, the potential amount of energy forecasted in the literature varied by at least two orders of magnitude, so the true amount remains a huge unknown. It was further noted that freshwater was tied up in these clathrates (or gas hydrates), providing a double benefit to society. We did not mention the double-edged sword danger of this methane regarding global warming, mostly because we then were unaware of the effect.

More recently, the International Center for Climate and Society at the University of Hawaii, a sister unit of the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC, a joint U.S.-Japan alliance, located on the fourth floor of the Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building, where I have been enjoying a favorable corner office for more than 6 years now), has partnered with various academic and research organizations in Alaska to take a closer look at the energy and environmental implications of MMH. Also, too, researchers in the Oceanography Department have refined their observation of the ocean, and have measured the omnipresence of methane, in certain locales to be at supersaturation.

These MMH—methane locked in ice at the sea bottom—are in dynamic equilibrium with the ocean. One cubic meter of fully saturated MMH contains 164 cubic meters of methane (at standard temperature and pressure) and 0.87 cubic meters of water. These hydrates are less dense than seawater, so, if they are somehow jiggled loose, say by an undersea earthquake or volcanic eruption, they rise to the surface. After all, ice and gases only go up when in water. How did they get there? When marine life dies, it descends to the bottom of the ocean. Bacterial degradation of organic matter in low oxygen environments produces methane, which under cold, deep ocean conditions are latticed into ice, and trapped there as long as conditions do not change. If the climate warms enough, then the forcing function will ultimately release methane, which, if not biologically consumed, will make its way to the atmosphere.

Some of the public releases on this subject have been almost inflammatory, so I will attempt to be circumspect. Part 11 will summarize the current state of thinking regarding the potential danger of methane in global climate warming.
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Tropical Storm Hanna is now following the predicted northward path parallel to the Florida Coast, and should slightly increase from 60 to 70 MPH over the next two days, making landfall on Saturday, most probably the Carolinas, but moving northeast after that to remain along the Eastern Seaboard. Hannah is now not expected to reach hurricane status, but winds are nevertheless high, plus flooding will occur.
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Hurricane Ike is at 130 MPH, but should weaken over the next few days because it will encounter some cooler waters churned up by Hanna. At some point, some restrengthening should occur. Ike should threaten Florida by the middle of next week as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane.
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Tropical Storm Josephine is at around 45 MPH and should slightly weaken over the next couple days, but could strengthen a couple of days after that to 50 MPH, following a west northwest path north of the other two storms and a few days back.
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In the Pacific, Tropical Depression Karina has weakened to less than 30 MPH, lost organization, and should become a remnant in a couple of days.
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Crude oil slipped down to $107.80/bbl, but the DJI really dropped, 345 to 11,188. Wall Street was confused as to why.
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