Recent Energy Situation
Japan depends on imports from overseas for more than 80% of the primary energy the country uses, which is mostly fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. It is also characteristic that Japan is highly dependent on crude oil from the Middle East and natural gas from Asia and the Pacific area. Under these circumstances, from the viewpoint of securing stable energy supplies, it is a pressing issue for Japan to explore diversified supply sources as well as to improve the ratio of energy procured through independent exploitation efforts. In particular, as natural gas is a clean energy source compared to crude oil or coal, with low emissions of CO2 and sulfur oxides, there are plans to actively accelerate its introduction in Japan. However, demands for natural gas are increasing worldwide with countries such as India showing the greatest growth in consumption, inviting steeper competition among procurers.
In this situation, considerable amounts of methane hydrate – an unconventional natural gas resource – are estimated to exist off the coast of Japan. When methane hydrate production technology is established and commercialization is realized, it is expected to become a new domestic energy source that will significantly contribute to the securing of stable supplies of energy for Japan.
Japan’s Initiatives toward Methane Hydrate Research
In view of the significance of methane hydrate production technology in the energy policy as described above, the METI announced the “Japan’s Methane Hydrate R&D Program” in FY 2001. This is an 18-year plan to be completed in FY 2018 (initially planned as a 16-year plan to be completed in FY 2016 but revised at the time of Interim appraisal in FY 2008). The basic policy for the plan is to “Methane hydrate, of which there is expected to be substantial amounts offshore Japan, is positioned as a future energy resource, and impelling technological developments into drilling, production and recovery of methane hydrate on an economical basis for future utilization will contribute to the acquisition of a long-term steady supply of energy.” and the step-by-step objectives presented include the following six items:
- Clarification of MH occurrences and characteristics offshore Japan
- Assessment of methane gas amounts trapped in promising offshore methane hydrate bearing zones
- Selection of methane hydrate resource fields from promising offshore methane hydrate bearing zones and deliberation of economic potential
- Implementation of production tests in the selected methane hydrate resource fields
- Improvement of technologies for the commercial production
- Establishment of a development system complying with environment
This program proposes a three-phase approach for accomplishing the above objectives. The eight years from FY 2001 to 2008 is Phase 1 to accomplish goals 1 to 3 above, followed by Phase 2, seven years from FY 2009 to 2015, to accomplish goal 4.
After that program was developed, public interest in methane hydrate as a future domestic energy source grew, and an April 2005 cabinet decision included reference to the promotion of methane hydrate-related technological development to be included in the plan for achieving Japan’s Kyoto Protocol targets. Furthermore, the Basic Energy Plan established in a March 2007 cabinet decision and the Basic Plan on Ocean Policy established in a March 2008 cabinet decision included reference to efforts toward commercialization of methane hydrate. In addition to methane hydrate, for petroleum and natural gas resources and seafloor hydrothermal deposits, the Offshore Energy and Mineral Resources Development Plan was established in March 2009 under the Basic Plan on Ocean Policy.