India’s hydrocarbon gold mine so close, yet so far! – the economic times gas utility bill


MUMBAI: India is highly energy starved. Since nature has not been benevolent to the country as neither is the country endowed with rich deposits of oil or gas nor with energy rich uranium. Consequently, to power a 1.25 billion people India spends a whopping USD 160 billion annually for importing oil and gas to meet the surging domestic demands.

Commenting on the current situation, noted energy expert Ratan K Sinha, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, says, "India cannot perpetually depend on imported energy, very soon the country will have to look at options that will give the country energy independence."

Amid this gloomy prognosis, there is one hydrocarbon source that is available in plenty but remains untapped, since technological challenges of commercially mining it are yet to be overcome. This is a hydrocarbon ‘diamond’ called gas hydrate which is a form of solidified natural gas that occurs at the bottom of the ocean.

A just concluded Indo-Japanese expedition on board a world-class ship called Chikyu has again reinforced the huge potential of this energy rich deposit. In the 150 day, cruise of Chikyu that cost about Rs 616 crore exploratory drilling was done in the Bay of Bengal to map the hidden hydrocarbon resource.

The seas of the country are home to some rich beds of what are called ‘gas hydrates‘, these are essentially solidified lumps of the commonly occurring ‘marsh gas’. This highly-inflammable gas called methane under certain very specific conditions solidifies along with water and forms a white ‘ice cream’ like substance.

This white mass has been discovered in large quantities in the seas around the Krishna-Godavari-Mahanadi basin; in the Andaman Islands; off the coast of Saurashtra; and in the Kerala-Konkan region. When tapped it could power India with an abundant supply of natural gas for a long time. It should be noted that methane is a highly potent green house gas and hence its mining has to be done with great care to ensure none leaks out.

These hydrocarbon rich deposits occur at times at depths of one km below the sea and in locations where the temperature is just right about 5-6 degrees Celsius. The enormous pressure at such depths forces the methane to solidify and it occurs intermixed with the soil and sand.

Dr S W A Naqvi, director of the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, feels it is "exceedingly important" for India to tap this hydrocarbon goldmine since the country’s exclusive economic zone is richly endowed with gas hydrates but they are difficult to mine as the technology for tapping them is still not developed.

According to the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, cooperation with the United States Department of Energy in the field of gas hydrates, would facilitate active participation of the National Gas Hydrate Programme of India (NGHP) and American scientists in joint data collection, analysis and identification of sites for pilot production testing.

Speaking in Parliament, Minister of State for Petroleum & Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan informed that the National Gas Hydrate Programme (NGHP) expeditions have established the presence of gas hydrates on the east coast deep-water basins of Krishna Godavari, Mahanadi and Andaman in the Bay of Bengal.

For the exploration and development of gas hydrates, NGHP was formulated by the government in 1995. The first NGHP expedition was carried out in 2006, where coring and drilling at 21 sites in western offshore, eastern offshore and Andaman sea were done to know the occurrence of gas hydrates in offshore areas.

Back in 2006, the presence of gas hydrates was first established in Krishna-Godavari Basin when drill ship ‘Joides Resolution’ did some surveys at a cost of USD 36 million which according to the government showed the presence of sizable reserves of good quality gas hydrates in the sedimentary basins in India.

Speaking about this success, the then petroleum minister Murli Deora remarked "this marks a very significant development in the country. R&D work is in progress to develop a commercially viable technology to produce natural gas from gas hydrates, which is so far not available anywhere in the world. Development of this unconventional source of energy could meet a large part of our ever increasing demand for gas in the decades to come."

Experts like Dr Aninda Mazumdar, a well-known a marine hydrocarbon scientist working at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, who was onboard the ship Chikyu on its mission this year, says, "As of now the economics may be against exploiting gas hydrates but once oil and shale gas becomes scarce, the cost of extracting gas hydrates may become attractive so India needs to invest in R&D to be ready to overcome the forthcoming oil shock."