VOX POPULI: Ocean floor holds Japan’s hopes of domestically produced energy

March 19, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

When put side by side, the colors orange and blue accentuate each other. In chromatics, hues of such a relation are called complementary colors.

For a week earlier this month, a team of Japanese engineers extracted natural gas from “burning ice” that lies below the seabed off Aichi Prefecture. The orange flames seen rising toward a blue sky reflected on the sea surface were exhilarating.

The gas was extracted from a layer of methane hydrate that spreads about 300 meters below a 1,000-meter-deep floor of the Pacific Ocean. Like a straw, a well was dug into the “sherbet,” which consists of methane and water, to draw gas through a pipe to a vessel. The extraction of gas below the seabed was unprecedented.

The “gas fields” stretch from waters off Shizuoka Prefecture to the Kii Peninsula and further to the Kyushu region. Including the Sea of Japan side, waters near Japan hold one of the world’s richest reserves of methane hydrate.

If all goes well, the reserves are estimated to consist of as much natural gas as Japan consumes in 100 years. The fields are like big bucks buried in our gardens, so to speak. The best part is that Japan can freely dig for the gas without having to worry about bothering its neighbors.

Japan’s self-sufficiency rate of energy is slightly less than 5 percent, centering on hydropower generation. At a time when the country is relying heavily on thermal power to make up for a shortage of electricity resulting from the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, expectations for domestically produced energy are rising.

Although there are many hurdles to be cleared, such as production costs and collection methods, I want the Japanese government and private sector to join hands to put methane hydrate into practical use, like shale gas, whose production is now booming in the United States.

The gas fields in the Pacific Ocean overlap with the Nankai Trough, a subduction zone that causes powerful earthquakes.

According to government estimates, if the trough acts up, it could cause economic damage of up to 220 trillion yen ($2.3 trillion) to Japan in a worst-case scenario. This is a scary thought after the government’s estimate, released last summer, that about 320,000 people could die in an earthquake caused by the Nankai Trough.

It was two years ago that the ocean that had brought many blessings to us instantly transformed into an ocean that wrought serious damage.

Oil is hidden beneath barren deserts, and large quantities of diamonds and gold are buried in poverty-stricken and war-torn areas in Africa. If all lands have “balance sheets,” the Pacific Ocean owes Japan immeasurable “debts.” While being in awe of nature, we should continue to seek rightful blessings from the ocean.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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Flaming gas extracted from a methane hydrate layer below the seabed is seen at the stern of the exploration vessel Chikyu off the coast of Atsumi Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture on March 12. (Mari Endo)

Flaming gas extracted from a methane hydrate layer below the seabed is seen at the stern of the exploration vessel Chikyu off the coast of Atsumi Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture on March 12. (Mari Endo)

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  • Flaming gas extracted from a methane hydrate layer below the seabed is seen at the stern of the exploration vessel Chikyu off the coast of Atsumi Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture on March 12. (Mari Endo)

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