Methane hydrates are a form of compressed natural gas lying on the sea bottom. Developing them is risky and costly. Despite this, methane hydrates are an abundant fossil fuel resource that could last decades - if not centuries. For China, which now sees getting access to sufficient energy as a critical national challenge, that matters.
Estimates of the South China Sea's methane hydrate potential now range as high as 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas equivalent. That's sufficient to satisfy China's entire consumption of oil equivalents for 50 years.
Southeast of Hong Kong, China's offshore Lingshui 17-2 field shows signs that - all by itself - it could hold 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas equivalent.
Given this, China may be trying to gauge the extent of methane hydrate deposits elsewhere in the South China Sea. This could explain China's placement of an oil and gas rig off Vietnam twice in the past year. Both locations, lying between North Vietnam and the Paracel Islands, are considered promising places to look for methane hydrates.
In addition to offshore China and northern Vietnam, the Reed Bank area located west of the Philippine island of Palawan may be another South China Sea methane hydrate honey pot.
The Sampaguita Field within Reed Bank may also hold large deposits of natural gas equivalents in the form of methane hydrates, according to Philippine estimates.
Coincidentally, some of China's current South China Sea reef reclamation efforts are occurring on Mischief Reef and Nansha Island. Both of these are located just south of Reed Bank.
Both Mischief Reef and Nansha Island would be ideal for servicing and providing military security for offshore methane hydrate development in Reed Bank.
For years now, China's has been investing heavily in offshore oil production technology. China plans begin testing offshore methane hydrates extraction technology in 2017. China plans to begin commercial exploitation of methane hydrates by 2030 - without saying where.
As it happens, methane hydrate resources also exist in territorial contested areas of the East China Sea.
China recently resumed exploration drilling in an area just west of a bilaterally-recognized maritime equidistance line separating China and Japan. In 2008, China and Japan both paid lip service to potential joint development in the area.
Separately, in offshore areas north of Taiwan, the disputed Senkaku Islands may also hold commercial amounts of methane hydrates. To date, however, no exploration activity has occurred there that's been publicly announced.
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