The Cable

China Taps Lode of ‘Fire Ice’ in South China Sea

Beijing might have found a long-term solution to its energy problem — and another irritant for an already-tense flashpoint.

song of fire and ice

Tensions are already flaring up in the South China Sea, but things just got a lot more flammable — literally.

China announced what could be a big breakthrough this week, tapping for first time so-called ‘fire ice,’ or natural gas trapped deep under the ocean floor. It’s a potentially explosive development for an energy-starved country looking for additional sources of natural gas — but it could also spark further tensions in a part of the world where Beijing’s territorial ambitions are already colliding with its neighbors.

China mined the unique form of natural gas hydrate, gas trapped in ice crystals, on the ocean floor 4,000 feet beneath the surface, the Chinese Geological Survey announced Thursday. The CGS said it was able to extract methane for seven straight days in a landmark production experiment that moves methane hydrate production one step closer to commercial reality.

The experiment took place some 175 miles southeast of Hong Kong — smack dab in the middle of the hotly-contested South China Sea. The strategic waterway is the source of simmering geopolitical tensions between China and its regional adversaries, and is the source of increasing friction between Beijing and Washington. (And between Beijing and others: On Friday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said China threatened war if Manila tried to drill for oil in disputed waters.)

The undersea oil and gas riches in the South China Sea had already raised the stakes in the geopolitical fight in the region. A new, potentially vast, source of energy on the ocean floor won’t do much to dampen tensions.

Also called “combustible ice,” methane hydrates are natural gas trapped in the latticework of ice in sea sediments and permafrost. It burns easily and like all natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil. Potentially, the world has an enormous amount — there is perhaps twice as much gas in methane hydrates as in all the conventional gas deposits in the world — but today it is still prohibitively expensive to mine.

Down the road, if technical and economic hurdles can be overcome, that could be great news for countries like Japan, China, and India — all energy importers who haven’t been able to replicate the U.S. shale gas boom (China) or just don’t have the resources to even try (most everybody else.)

China is trying to wean itself off coal, given devastating air pollution that is harming health and undermining the Communist Party’s public support, but has to import huge amounts of gas from Russia and Central Asia. India, too, is desperate for alternatives to coal, and is working on its own methane hydrate program.

Japan, after the shutdown of all its nuclear power plants in 2011, had to import natural gas in a big way — leading to its first trade deficits in years — and has been hunting for methane hydrates off its own coasts. (Japan managed its own limited fire ice production for a few days in 2013.)

But longer term, the viability of fire ice could be a downer for countries like the United States, Australia, and Qatar, which have geared up to become big exporters of liquefied natural gas — with an eye, in particular, on hungry Asian markets.

That’s still a long way off, though. Experts predict it will take at least a decade or more until anyone can begin commercially producing energy from methane gas. Despite years of experiments, countries are still figuring out how best to extract methane gas from the sea floor, which means the process carries a steep price tag. A recent study estimated that gas from methane hydrates is 10 to 15 times more expensive to produce than (currently dirt cheap) U.S. natural gas.

But when oil and gas prices make a rebound, the new fuel source could become a lot more feasible, and could well be a geopolitical game-changer. One thing is for sure: The fact there is a potential motherlode of cleanish energy under the South China Sea all but guarantees that the world’s watery flashpoint won’t get any less tense.

Photo credit: Domiriel/Flickr

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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