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China claims breakthrough in mining 'flammable ice' (bbc.com)
48 points by r721 35 days ago | hide | past | web | 48 comments | favorite



Tapping clathrates is a whole new vast source of carbon. If this becomes economical and drastic measures aren't taken to capture and store the emissions, the climate is basically toast.

In the last few years, it has become quite obvious to me we're not going to ever run out of carbon before we, say, octuple (or more) the CO2 in the atmosphere. And the technology to get these fossil fuel sources improves just about as fast as other energy technologies (and sometimes faster). We have to rely on measures other than scarcity if we want to keep our atmospheric CO2 levels anywhere even remotely similar to what homo sapiens have experienced since we've been a species.


That is a valid concern. However, clathrates (mostly CH4) is actually much cleaner than coal, by far the biggest source of energy in China. If China can replace coal with clathrates, it would be an huge improvement for the environment.


China is already replacing coal with renewables and nuclear. It doesn't need a new source of CO2.


China is still building new coal. "65GW of new coal-fired units had started construction between January 2016 and January 2017, down 62% on the 170GW the year before. Most coal power stations are around 1GW or greater in capacity."

Consider that those coal plants could run for 40 years[3], it's probably better if those new plants were CCGT[2] rather than coal.

1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/22/coal-pow...

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_cycle

3. https://qz.com/61423/coal-fired-power-plants-near-retirement...


While completely true, this misses the crucial detail that burning the methane clathrates is pretty much the best case scenario for their release. They're coming out, one way or another. Right now, that means melting as methane, or burning to produce energy, yielding CO₂ — which, yes, would ideally be captured.

Which would you prefer?


Maybe a better thing would be to use some of the energy to convert the rest to hydrogen for more stable storage?


In the abstract, sure.

In the concrete, how viable is that technology? How efficient is it? How much of a hydrogen based energy storage infrastructure do we have to leverage for that?


Not just CO2 - methane is about 25x as potent in terms of global warming as CO2


Methane doesn't persist in the atmosphere for nearly as long however. It will break down upon exposure to oxygen, ozone, and UV sunlight.


The commonly cited 20-25 multiplier takes into account the half-life of methane. If the methane didn't beak down the multiplier would be 130-140.


why wouldn't you want to take the half life into account


This PR is about obscuring the military basis of Chinese maritime territorial claims.

Incidentally, it's not the first time methane clathrates have been used as cover for military purposes. The CIA-funded Glomar Explorer was nominally built for clathrate mining; in fact it was a recovery vessel for a sunken Soviet submarine.


"The CIA-funded Glomar Explorer was nominally built for clathrate mining"

Manganese nodules, actually.


How does this serve to obscure the military basis? By implying they have an economic basis instead, or as well?

I doubt that's much of a net PR win, because either way they would be facing the same charge of trying to claim territory that doesn't belong to them.


Chinese maritime claims have no basis in law, but they want to maximize their legitimacy anyhow. One avenue is through military dominance, which is very powerful but invites resistance/blowback. By adding claims of intended economic exploitaion, they get a rationale which is non-threatening, and can be used by anyone who wants to avoid conflict with China to say "see, their aims aren't so hostile after all."

They don't have to make the charge go away, they just need to FUD it.


Claiming areas that don't belong to them is one of China's strong points, they do it all the time and there's a dispute in the China Sea that could tie into this


Politics. Claiming areas that don't belong to them is one of the human species persistent activities.

I'll never understand French Polynesia or the Falkland Islands, but there you go.


The real concern here is that the country that's furthest along in extracting the methane is also pretty low on the list of countries that take great care with environmental concerns. As the article points out, the biggest danger with this as a NG source is that a lot of methane can escape before you've extracted it, and the methane that escapes is a huge concern as a greenhouse gas.


> pretty low on the list of countries that take great care with environmental concerns

The truth is not as simple as the western media makes it out to be. Between the US and China there are more than 40 countries in CO2 emissions per capita. In other words, one of the least responsible countries is the US (If you took a province of China with 200 million inhabitants, it would be an extremely responsible country compared to a country of similar size. Per capita, it sits right next to Iceland at around 6 tonnes of CO2/person)[0]

China is also the number one investor in renewable energy (more than double what the US is investing). Per capita, they are similar players with the US ahead. [1]

So it all depends on how you slice your data. Objectively it's easy to say that China is one of the most responsible countries in terms of global warming. Now whether it's just a matter of poverty and whether their growth strategy involves "de-carbonizing" de economy ... it's hard to say.

However, taping the clathrates without capture sounds like sucide.

[0] http://cotap.org/per-capita-carbon-co2-emissions-by-country [1] http://www.businessinsider.com/top-renewable-energy-investme...


China is still a developing country, there are more people in China that do not have access to electricity or then entire population of many of those 40 or so countries between it and the US on that list.

China has an energy problem if it wants to continue to grow it needs to increase its energy production by a steep factor.

It has a growing working and middle class that wants refrigerators and air conditioners. It still has half a million households had are not connected to electricity and many many more that are not connected to other utilities such as sewage.

China is investing in every energy solution it can because it's in a desperate need of more juice.


China is 175th in GDP per ton of emissions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_ratio_of_...

US is 80th, not great but there's really no comparison to Chian. For rich country comparison, UK is 22nd and France is 9th.


> US is 80th, not great but there's really no comparison to Chian.

This is true, but one should take into account that US's and most of the developed world economy has shifted into services and intellectual or branding schemes, exporting the dirty job of manufacturing to China.

It would be really surprising if that was not the case.


Very good point, and considering China is basically the manufacturing arm of almost every western country, any list "ranking" countries is useless propaganda.

Well, not useless I guess, considering it is propaganda.


> If you took a province of China with 200 million inhabitants, it would be an extremely responsible country compared to a country of similar size.

Having such an enormous population and population density relative to Western countries is irresponsible. I don't agree that you can just divide by population and say they're fine.


* China: 142 people/sq mile.

* Italy: 197 people/sq mile

* Spain: 210 people/sq mile

* Germany: 235 people/sq mile

* Belgium: 343 people/sq mile

* United Kingdom: 650 people/sq mile

Yeah, their density compared to Western countries is truly irresponsible.


I don't get your point. Who are referring to are not being responsible here? The Chinese government or the Chinese people? If the former, they installed one-child policy with the sole purpose of population restriction, sounds pretty "responsible" to me. If the latter, are you suggesting as a people, maybe the Chinese shouldn't breed as many, to, say, leave space for other people?


Yes, it's not particularly productive to factor China's large population into comparisons of current responsibility.

But GP has a valid point in pointing out that it's not reasonable to compare the entirety of a rich developed country to a low-density slice of China, which is very likely using fewer resources because of scarcity and underdevelopment rather than greater than average responsibility.


If I choose to drive 1000km that I don't have to drive in a 35mpg Prius I am not more environmentally conscious than someone who drives 200km in a 10mpg Hummer.

Similarly if I have 10 kids instead of 2.

Anyways, I should have said "was irresponsible" since those decisions were made by their ancestors a while back and so there's not much more they can do about it now.


The analog is pretty unreasonable. It sounds like 1000km Prius driver has an option to drive only 200km. But they may not have. I.e. a poor lower middle class worker needs to drive everyday for work, while a millionare might choose to stay at home being environmental friendly. But he might be using too much electricity...

Plus, you cannot just bash Chinese government of killing baby, while at the same time calling them environmental irresponsible...


> I don't agree that you can just divide by population and say they're fine.

CO2 output per country is not a reasonable metric. If we just split China into its provinces, does that make the problem go away? After all, each of the new countries now has a pretty small CO2 output.


The sustainability of CO2 emissions is measured in terms of emissions sources divided by its emissions sinks. A ratio above 1.0 means long term increases in atmospheric and oceanic CO2. The further above 1.0 we are, the less sustainable.

To make a very crude approximation, terrestrial emissions sinks scale proportionally with area. (Slightly less crude: sinks scale with forested area.) Generally speaking, countries need to have low emissions per unit area to be sustainable. Having low emissions per-capita but a high population density is no more sustainable than low population density and high emissions per-capita.

China has land area of 9328246 km^2 and emitted 10641789000 tons of CO2 in 2015: that's 1141 tons/km^2/year

USA has 9147590 km^2 land area and emitted 5172338000 tons CO2: 565 tons/km^2/year

Canada has 9093507 km^2 land area and emitted 555401000 tons CO2: 61 tons/km^2/year

EDIT: this was not intended to show China as "the worst." Belgium, for example, emits 3324 tons/km^2/year.

On one hand this leads to philosophical issues of justice like "luck egalitarianism": is it fair that Canadians, by accident of birth, have so much more headroom to emit sustainably than people born to the south or east of them? (Is it fair that any nation's citizens enjoy advantages from their own country's natural resources? I tend to think "yes, it's fair enough" but people may reasonably disagree.)

On the other hand, the pragmatic issue is that most countries are emitting CO2 faster than their geographic area can sink those same emissions. Certainly the largest political blocs are emitting unsustainably. The object of measuring emissions is ultimately to control them, not just to identify the party that deserves the loudest booing while we wreck the climate together. The USA, China, India, EU: none of them is "fine" and all need to make significant progress before their emissions are balanced with their sinks. (Not all of the effort needs to be on abating sources, though that's where the low hanging fruit is right now. Increasing sinking rates with afforestation, promoting soil carbon stores, and/or silicate weathering are also viable options.)


You raise a good point, but I think we have to introduce exports and imports into the calculation. As most countries are not subsistance economies, but rather produce for consumption in other countries (and import other products themselves), those exports have to be attributed to the country whose population consumes them. The products that land e.g. in Wallmarts should be attributed to U.S. CO2 output, whereas meat produced in Argentina but consumed in China should be attributed to China.

Otherwise, the numbers don't make sense: China wouldn't release that much CO2 if nobody would import from China.


I think that Exxon Mobil owns the responsibility for its business's CO2 impacts and can't wiggle away by saying "we're just servants to our customers' buying habits -- lecture them about emissions." Likewise I think that when Chinese factories make money from CO2-intensive exports they also own the responsibility for the corresponding environmental burden.

Of course Chinese factories may decline to voluntarily erode one of their cost advantages by bringing environmental standards up to parity with e.g. the EU, and in that case I think that the EU should use tariffs to ensure that imports don't get a competitive price advantage by way of externalized environmental damage. But that's somewhat different from believing that shoppers buying imports are really the responsible party when it comes to pollution generated by those goods' production.


huh? The question is whether a group's behavior is irresponsible. Are you saying that merely existing is irresponsible? And if so what exactly follows from that, China already has relatively low birth rate...


Tom Clancy movie plot: Apocalyptic extremist group gets hold of a nuclear weapon and plots to use it to release a large amount of methane. However, it doesn't stop there. They also ignite the methane to create an ongoing reaction heat the hydrate deposit to release additional billions of tons of methane.

Slightly more sophisticated movie plot: Market forces accomplish basically the same thing over the period of a few decades, which still results in a runaway positive feedback loop causing more methane hydrates to release, making it warmer, etc.


the second plot is much more likely to happen, unfortunately problems spanning a few decades don't make great movies or seem to be addressable by humans generally


"The Swarm" by Frank Schätzing has a semi-related plot circling around the clathrate gun hypothesis.


> The real concern here is that the country that's furthest along in extracting the methane is also pretty low on the list of countries that take great care with environmental concerns.

This narrative is getting more obsolete each day. Compare the recent changes in the Trump administration regarding climate change and environmental agencies with this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_China

Edit (for context, 2 days ago Trump said this):

I've loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn't do anything, that jobs were going down, we were losing business. We are loosening it up,...


> The real concern here is that the country that's furthest along in extracting the methane is also pretty low on the list of countries that take great care with environmental concerns.

As a westerner, you can only enjoy your 'environmentally-friendly' (It's really not) lifestyle, because you outsource all your manufacturing pollution to China.

If all the stuff you used were made domestically, your nation's carbon footprint would increase - massively. And China's would decrease.

The atmosphere doesn't care about these accounting tricks, though.


Much better alternative to coal, at least. You emit far less CO2 per KWh generated and the only other byproduct besides CO2 tends to be water.


MAYBE. Methane leaks are incredibly destructive as methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And mining this stuff could cause leaks.


Allthough you could also argue that because of warming these gasses might escape if we don't mine them before that.


All you need is for someone to come up with a way to capture a lot of methane very cheaply but very inefficiently. Then a swarm of marginal operators will go in with that technique and release gigafktons of methane.


Probably though it depends on how much CO2 it takes to mine / transport / refine etc.


Move to methane-powered equipment to mine the methane. Or solar-powered.


Clathrates are one possible positive feedback mechanism that could quickly (i.e. human lifespan) increase the Earth's temperature in response to an initial (human-caused) smaller heat pulse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis


"So the trick is to extract the gas without any of it slipping out."

Why should we expect energy companies to be capable of this, given their environmental track records for other fuels?


Yay! More CO2!




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