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The next key energy source? A flaming snowball

The federal government spent $3.9-million over the last three years to study a frosty power source: flammable snowballs.

Methane gas hydrates are frozen clumps packed with natural gas that can be found in many regions of the world. The global supply is thought to be so vast that some observers estimate it could contain more energy than all other known fossil fuels combined.

And Canada is believed to be sitting on a lot of it.

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It's one of several countries racing to learn how to turn methane gas hydrates into a commercially viable energy source.

"It has increased and it's still on the agenda," Donna Kirkwood, a senior director with the Geological Survey of Canada, said of government funding for hydrates research.

"It is something that the federal government is trying to push forward, trying to specifically push the research and development along the innovation chain."

Methane gas hydrates are found around the world, buried hundreds of metres underground in the Arctic sub-permafrost and beneath seafloor sediments.

The frozen masses, which resemble packed snow or ice, are made up of water and methane, and are formed under high pressure.

Hydrates also have an eye-catching feature: add some fire and they become flaming ice chunks (scientists, however, stress the substance doesn't ignite on its own).

Over the last several years, Ottawa has been pumping more and more cash into finding cost-effective ways of exploiting the resource.

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Ms. Kirkwood said Natural Resources Canada has spent $1.3-million on research in each of the last three years.

"It's something if the government doesn't keep on its radar no one will," said Ms. Kirkwood, adding that Canadian industry players haven't made significant investments into costly hydrates research - yet.

"It's an opportunity for us to be ahead of the curve."

And Canada sees the opportunity.

The Mackenzie River delta, in the Northwest Territories, churns above one the planet's most-concentrated reservoirs of hydrates, according to Natural Resources Canada's website.

One expert estimates the Canadian Arctic holds anywhere from 21- to 707-trillion cubic metres of natural gas in its hydrates.

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To compare, Yannick Beaudoin of the United Nations Environment Program highlights the 2009 U.S. consumption of natural gas: 650 billion cubic metres.

Mr. Beaudoin believes the world's hydrates could contain up to 20,000 trillion cubic metres of natural gas - although not all of it is recoverable.

"This is a big number - it's there to attract attention," said Mr. Beaudoin, who works with a group of UN scientists assessing what the world knows about hydrates.

"So, of course, this will affect how energy markets evolve in the future if this is looked as a potential world source."

Canada isn't alone in the quest to harness hydrates. Several countries, including Japan, China and the United States, have also launched programs to exploit the resource, which has comparable emissions to conventional natural gas.

The U.S. Department of Energy says, "While global estimates vary considerably, the energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels."

"We're not trying to say that this is the fix and the solution," Mr. Beaudoin said of the planet's future energy needs. "But we know that there's an interest. Governments are investing money into this and there's a reason."

With the explosion of attention, he predicts hydrates production to begin in 10 to 15 years.

He compares its rapid growth to the shale gas industry, which is another unconventional source of natural gas.

"They went basically from discussion to commercialization," said Mr. Beaudoin, a Canadian who's now based at the UNEP/GRID-Arendal centre in Norway.

But exploiting the resource does not come without risks.

Hydrates are extracted by either drilling wells down to either the sub-permafrost of the Arctic - hundreds of metres below the surface - or to shallower underground layers underneath the sea floor.

But some fear that disturbing the powerful gas hydrates below the seabed could trigger underwater landslides or earthquakes.

"There's always a risk, but I believe it's a manageable risk," said Jocelyn Grozic, a University of Calgary geotechnical engineer who's been working with gas hydrates for 11 years.

"There's always a possibility and it's certainly something that needs to be planned for, and accurately modelled, and taken into account, but it's not a showstopper."

Ms. Grozic says Canada has been at the forefront of world hydrates research, but it must develop a comprehensive plan to keep up with countries like the United States and Japan.

In 2001, Canada launched a joint pilot project with organizations from the U.S., Japan, Germany and India at the Mallik drilling site in the Northwest Territories.

Today, Japan has plans to drill its own offshore hydrates. Meanwhile, the list of interested countries grows longer.

"It's amazing, it's just gone through the roof," Ms. Grozic said of the growth of methane gas hydrates research. "Interest has just increased dramatically over the last five years."

Still, gas hydrates remain a mystery to some, Ms. Grozic said.

"Most [people in the]general public have no idea, even most engineers and scientists, a good half of them, won't have a clue what you're talking about," she said.

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