China extracts 861,400 cubic metres of natural gas from ‘flammable ice’ in South China Sea

China said on Thursday it extracted 861,400 cubic metres of natural gas from gas hydrates found in the South China Sea during a month-long trial that ended last week.

The production process, which ran from February 17 to March 18, also set two world records: one for the largest total volume extracted and another for the most produced – 287,000 cubic metres – on a single day, the Ministry of Natural Resources said on its website.

The gas was extracted from an area in the north of the disputed waterway, and from a depth of about 1,225 metres, it said.

China conducted its first operation to extract natural gas from gas hydrates in the South China Sea in 2017, achieving 300,000 cubic metres over a 60-day period.

The success of the latest trial set a “solid technical foundation for commercial exploitation”, the ministry said, adding that China was the first country in the world to exploit gas hydrates using a horizontal well-drilling technique.

Also known as flammable ice, gas hydrates are icelike solids composed mostly of methane. According to figures from the US Department of Energy, one cubic metre of gas hydrate releases 164 cubic metres of conventional natural gas once extracted.

The South China Sea test coincided with sharp movements in global oil and gas prices. China, which is the world’s largest oil and gas importer, has been keen to identify alternative fuel sources, including gas hydrates, to strengthen its energy security.

The official Economic Daily reported in 2017 that China’s reserves of flammable ice were equivalent to about 100 billion tonnes of oil, of which 80 billion tonnes were in the South China Sea.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior energy adviser at the Beijing office of the National Resources Defence Council, an international environmental advocacy group, said that natural gas consumption in China was relatively low compared with that of other countries.

“The demand for natural gas is large and the prospect is promising, but it’s hard to say when China will have commercial development of flammable ice,” he said.

While the government has set a target for natural gas to account for 10 per cent of China’s annual energy consumption by the end of this year, in 2019, the figure was just 8.3 per cent.

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Fan Xiao, chief engineer with the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, said that compared to conventional fuels like oil and gas, flammable ice was still too costly to extract to make its widespread use commercially viable.

“It is an important resource, but exploiting it in a sustainable, economically viable way is still some way off,” he said.

There were also environmental concerns, such as methane leaking during the exploitation process, which increased greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Yang agreed, saying there would be leakage of methane during both mining and transport.

“If the leakage exceeds 5 per cent of the total, it will offset its contribution to carbon reduction,” he said.

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