Once upon a time, before I descended into parenthood and dull stability, I was out with a group of friends who had, let’s just say, been drinking quite a bit. One of the young men in this group proposed to two others that they do something that was, to put it bluntly, totally moronic and likely to get them into enormous trouble. One of the gentlemen to whom this had been proposed thought for a moment, and then observed that this was likely to bring down the authorities upon them. The third gentleman responded to this with, “Yeah, but it would be awesome!” After a brief moment’s consideration, both of the other young men shrugged, bowed to the weight of reason brought to bear by the assertion of awesomeness, set aside trifling considerations like ending up in jail, and went off to perform the moronic act in question which had, pretty much, the expected consequences.
From this lesson I derived the knowledge that sometimes the perception of awesomeness is all, even when it ought to be (but isn’t) accompanied by the perception of stupidness. For some incomprehensible reason, I was thinking of this as I read Dave Cohen’s very funny (in a horrible way) piece on the NAS’s enthusiasm for the use of methane hydrates as a source of fuel.
We must consider The Importance of Methane Hydrate to the Nation.
Ensuring reliable sources of natural gas is of significant strategic interest to the United States… Natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, emitting from 25 to 50 percent less carbon dioxide than either oil or coal for each unit of energy produced. In recent years, natural gas has supplied approximately 20-25 percent of all energy consumed in the United States.
Accumulations of methane hydrate, a solid form of natural gas, may represent an enormous source of methane [See the Figure above]… Although the estimated total global volume of methane in methane hydrate is still debated, generally acknowledged estimates yield figures between 2 and 10 times greater than those of technically recoverable conventional natural gas resources. The existence of such a large and as-yet untapped methane hydrate resource has provided a strong global research incentive to determine how methane from methane hydrate might be produced as a technically safe, environmentally compatible, and economically competitive energy resource.
Although methane is a cleaner-burning energy source than other fossil fuels, it is itself a significant greenhouse gas, about 25 times more potent per molecule than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis. Thus, understanding the potential environmental impacts of methane hydrate degassing and the seafloor hazard (“geohazard”) potential resulting from methane hydrate dissociation, whether through natural processes or through oil and gas drilling and production, are also important as its potential for commercial production is considered and tested.
Well, of course, this makes sense. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently disturb a big patch of methane hydrates, which might lead to the release of a shitload of gas into the water column, which would eventually lead to its bubbling out of the sea and into the atmosphere.
You see, if the methane in ocean floor hydrates gets loose, that’s much, much worse than if we successfully capture it, pipe it somewhere and burn it. In this latter case, we only get the carbon emissions from burning the “pure” natural gas (CH4), not the full-blown greenhouse effects of unadulterated methane in the atmosphere, which converts to CO2 over time there–it’s 25 times more potent per molecule [as a greenhouse gas] than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis.
Methane hydrates are stable under low temperatures and high
pressures. So, I guess you could say that by capturing & burning
the natural gas in ocean floor hydrates, we would be actually saving the planet from the future ruin we might incur if the deep oceans were to warm sufficiently–due to the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas–to cause natural degassing.
Perhaps you were a bit concerned for a little while here about the consequences of exploiting methane hydrates. But as I’ve just explained to you, there’s no need to worry about it–it’s all good!
It does sound like this particular NAS research group has been out sucking down the Jagermeister, and has now decided that the awesomeness of methane hydrates outweigh the very real risks of trying to exploit them. The awesomeness of the hydrates is this – they are a potential source of energy that would allow us to keep up our ridiculous rate of consumption without actually having to deal with energy constraints. Since we’ve already pretty much decided that we’re going to do shit about global warming, we might as well not worry about it – remember, this is awesome.
And the problem with this is not the shift to drunken report-writing of the NAS, it is this – the combination of our need to cling to the familiar and our taste for the shiny and awesome have the potential to do more harm than our other worst traits. I have often wondered whether we will destroy the earth, in the end, mostly because it is cool and we can.
The good news is that awesomeness is not only destructive, and drunks are easily led. While they may sometimes get fixated on telling you how much they really, truly love you, or on what the true lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama” were in the original draft of the song, they also can be fixated on things that other people think are awesome. Perhap this committee of the NAS can be redirected into some useful purpose simply by pointing out that not raising the world’s temperature by 7 or 8 degrees might be totally, totally awesome!