Methane hydrates are methane bearing, ice-like materials that occur in abundance in permafrost areas such as on the North Slope of Alaska and Canada and as well as in offshore continental margin environments throughout the world including the Gulf of Mexico and the East and West Coasts of the United States. Methane hydrate accumulations in the United States are currently estimated to be about 200,000 Tcf, which is enormous when compared to the conventional recoverable resource estimate of 2300 Tcf. On a worldwide basis, the estimate is 700,000 Tcf or about two times the total carbon in coal, oil and conventional gas in the world. The enormous size of this resource, if producible to any degree, has significant implications for U.S. and worldwide clean energy supplies and global environmental issues.
Historically the petroleum industry's interests in methane hydrates have primarily been related to safety issues such as wellbore stability while drilling, seafloor stability, platform subsidence, and pipeline plugging. Many questions remain to be answered to determine if any of this potential energy resource is technically and economically viable to produce. Major technical hurdles include: 1) methods to find, characterize, and evaluate the resource; 2) technology to safely and economically produce natural gas from methane hydrate deposits; and 3) safety and seafloor stability issues related to drilling through gas hydrate accumulations to produce conventional oil and gas. The petroleum engineering profession currently deals with gas hydrates in drilling and production operations and will be key to solving the technical and economic problems that must be overcome for methane hydrates to be part of the future energy mix in the world.