FAIRBANKS - BP is launching an effort to map methane gas deposits beneath the North Slope tundra that geologists believe could dwarf Alaska's natural gas deposits.
Armed with $13.27 million in federal grant money, BP is going to pursue methods to efficiently convert methane gas into a clean-burning energy source.
"It's very exciting, actually," Paul Metz, an associate professor in the mining and geological engineering department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Scientists from UAF, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Geological Survey will participate in the project. BP will augment the federal grant with $8 million of its own funds.
While the spotlight of late has been on Alaska's conventional natural gas resources, methane hydrates have the potential to represent the longer-term future of Alaska natural gas production, scientists say.
"Gas hydrates are a significant resource on the North Slope," said Ronnie Chappell, a spokesman for BP. "We've been drilling through them for years as we developed the Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Milne Point oil fields."
Chappell said that estimates of North Slope methane hydrates run in excess of 40 trillion cubic feet. "Which is equivalent to the conventional gas resource (in the Alaska Arctic)," he said.
The estimates vary, and UAF's Metz said there could even be hundreds of times more methane hydrates in Alaska than conventional gas.
Methane gas hydrates are formed when a cage-like lattice of ice encases molecules of methane, the chief component of natural gas. They can be found in permafrost and under the ocean floor.
The challenge is to efficiently convert the frozen solid hydrates into a gas that can be focused into a well for production and then insertion into a pipeline.
The federal government has estimated the scope of gas hydrates in the United States at up to 320,000 trillion cubic feet. That is 200 times the nation's conventional natural gas resources and reserves.
BP, and the other participants in its project, will focus on areas within the Prudhoe Bay, Milne Point and Kuparuk units. The BP project could last up to four years.
"The first stage will be some more seismic work to better define the resource," Metz said. "Then some actual drilling and testing of production methods."
Maurer Technology of Houston, Texas, also won a federal grant to study methane hydrate potential on the North Slope. Maurer Technology, along with partners Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Engineering, will drill and test hydrate production in the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk areas.
The Texas company will spend $7.36 million, about $4 million of it coming from the federal grant, on its North Slope effort.
The BP and Maurer Technology grants are part of $48 million that the federal government will provide for six projects throughout the nation aimed at studying the potential of methane gas hydrates.