WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Energy has completed an unprecedented successful test of tapping the vast storehouse of methane hydrates on Alaska's North Slope, essentially natural gas locked in ice crystals under the permafrost.
It is still a long way from being commercial but the potential is huge.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the North Slope holds 590 trillion cubic feet of methane hydrate, potentially at least three times as much as the huge amount of conventional natural gas on the North Slope.
The Department of Energy said it also has the potential to eventually unlock massive reservoirs of methane hydrates that are believed to exist under the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Department of Energy conducted the small-scale test at Prudhoe Bay between Feb. 15 and April 10 and released the results Wednesday, saying it safely extracted a steady flow of natural gas. The department declared that "methane hydrates may exceed the energy content of all other fossil fuels combined; could ensure decades of affordable natural gas and cut America's foreign oil dependence." It's still in the research phase, though, and much more needs to be worked out before it's clear if the process is economically feasible.
"It's great news, certainly a reminder for all those who make fun of federal research that it does have value. But that is a long-term effort, we need to keep that in mind," said Larry Persily, the federal coordinator for a proposed natural gas pipeline project aimed at bringing Alaska's conventional gas to market.
The Department of Energy conducted the test with help from Conoco Phillips and the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. The technology was developed in the lab by Conoco Phillips working with the University of Bergen in Norway.
"It's certainly exciting, it was a successful test," said Conoco Phillips spokeswoman Amy Burnett. "But we're still a long way off from getting commercial production."
The researchers injected a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen into the hydrate formation, which took in the carbon dioxide and released the methane. They also lowered the pressure in the well to make the hydrate flow and get the gas out.
"We just completed the test, just plugged the well last week but we've got 30 days of production data which is considerably longer than any field test anyone in the world has ever done," said Christopher Smith, deputy assistant secretary for oil and natural gas. "We're headed back to the laboratory to analyze that and we're excited about the early results."
Smith said the process has potential for removing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide -- a major greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming -- as well as producing the natural gas.
The Department of Energy said the next step in its research effort will be testing gas hydrate production over longer periods, with the eventual goal of sustained production. It's offering $6.5 million in research grants and requesting $5 million from Congress for an additional testing effort.
The $5 million would be for more research on the North Slope, Smith said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the successful Department of Energy test "wonderful news for Alaska and America," saying in a written statement that she sponsored legislation and approved money for the methane hydrate research. "If we can bring this technology to commercialization, it would truly be a game changer for America."
Reach Sean Cockerham at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @seancockerham.