So, going back to our title, how about those hydrates? Well, here is a word that hounded me for almost the entirety of my military service (which I spent on Kastelorizo). I first heard it on the boat-ride to Cat Island and the word went on to inhabit my mind ever since. It wasn’t the word itself that kept popping up but rather incidents that inadvertently pointed to it; talk about a mythical treasure found deep in the island’s turquoise waters, debates on TV about the Exclusive Economic Zone of Kastelorizo, my commander’s musings on the International Law of the Sea.
Do I still have your attention? Good because Cat Island seems to be sitting on a massive reserve of hydrates that, according to scientists, possibly constitute the solution to mankind’s energy problem.
Of course, no one on Cat Island really knows what hydrates are and
neither do you, for that matter.
These days (summer of 2011), sightings of nudist Greek-Australian tourists and the anchoring of oversized yachts seem to monopolize all local news. As the herald of such news, stands my friend A., a local boy, who at the mere reference to the island’s deep-sea riches usually responds “There’s oil, I tell you. There’s oil everywhere”.
To be clear, hydrates are not oil but, rather, tiny mineral compounds that contain natural gas, and specifically methane, mixed in with H20. Why are hydrates, or natural gas hydrates as they are properly known, important? Well, these molecules offer a viable solution to our energy dilemma. They carry twice as much carbon than other fossil fuels and they can be found throughout the globe. Oops, did I use the C word? See the catch is that hydrates are carbon-based thus posing the same threats to the environment that other, more ordinary, fossil fuels do. Thus, our story begins.
The interest in hydrates arose in the 1960s when the first masses of these methane rich particles were found in nature and, specifically, beneath our ocean’s basin. Commercial exploitation of gas hydrates was spearheaded by the Soviet Union in the 1970s with Japan and the USA following close behind. Low temperatures along with extreme pressure favor the development and storage of hydrates. In its original form, gas hydrates actually resemble pieces of ice and, when lit, they give off a flame thus earning itself the name burning ice. Apparently, this burning ice has the potential to fuel the world economy. However, conflicting views over the environmental effects of gas hydrates seem to undermine their viability as an energy source suitable to counter the difficulties of the 21st century. The conventional take on gas hydrates emphasizes the destructive side-effects of methane being released into the atmosphere. Methane has a global warming potential that is more than just worrisome. Characteristically, the destructiveness of methane has been used as fodder for many a science fiction novel which usually entail the end of the world.
More recently, however, scientific research indicates that methane’s destructive nature can be checked by its careful substitution with carbon dioxide. In a nutshell, this exchange not only extracts the methane but also safely stores the co2 thus minimizing any harm done to the environment.
Along with the above environmental concerns, the natural gas industry also faces elementary problems concerning the actual retrieval of gas hydrates. A basic obstacle, when drilling for gas hydrates, is that they are usually to be found in remote sub-aquatic locations. Rig workers are acquainted with offshore drilling but the depth at which gas hydrates may be found is still problematic for the even the most seasoned mining team. Gas hydrates may be found anywhere between 300 to 3000 meters below sea level. Likewise, the equipment itself is considerably expensive compared to the technology used in other drilling operations. Thus, in comparison to conventional gas retrieval, drilling for gas hydrates is almost double in cost.
So where does Kastelorizo fit in? It doesn’t really. Greek authorities have made limited headway in the exploitation of these hydrates. For those familiar with the current political climate in the country and its lack of funds, it is no wonder that Kastelorizo’s mineral riches have taken the back seat. Thus, Greece has focused on its more traditional source of energy (oil) which is to be found off the coast of Thasos, in the northern Aegean Sea.
Nevertheless, a series of EU funded programs were implicated in the exploration and study of the Eastern Mediterranean’s mineral riches. Beginning in the mid-1990s, projects such as HYACE, ANAXIMANDER, HERMES, HERMIONE all contributed to the more accurate estimation of gas hydrate reserves. However, the survey performed by the Anaximander team is of greater importance for it came up with the most accurate figures to date. According to the consortium of research institutes and universities involved in the project, the total volume of gas hydrates has been estimated at around 0.25 km³ which constitutes a considerable amount.
The Anaximander project was completed in 2006 and ever since the question remains when will these vast amounts of natural gas be exploited? As mentioned, Greece lags behind in any kind of initiative that would look into the exploration and exploitation of gas hydrates in the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek energy industry is oil-oriented and it leaves little room for the research of non-petroleum products. Moreover, Greece has to deal with Turkey’s claims of sovereignty in the Aegean. You see this age-old conflict spills over into waters that are not strictly speaking the Aegean and in these waters one finds Kastelorizo. More specifically, the more updated version of Greco-Turkish debacle positions Cat Island in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war that postpones any real exploration of the island’s adjacent waters.
__For the record, Ankara does not accept the International Law of the Sea and its provisions for the extension of islands’ territorial waters and the delimitation of the continental shelf.
The gist of the matter is that Kastelorizo’s geographical position contradicts Turkey’s plans to exercise, to the fullest extent, its jurisdiction over the waters lying south of its coasts__. Mind you that the intricacies of the laws governing territorial waters are a subject matter worthy of a whole different article. Nevertheless, if one looks at a map of the Eastern Mediterranean and, then, at the territorial waters claimed by the countries in question, one can discern the blueprint of a real geoeconomic conflict.
What to make of all of the above? It is hard to say and even harder to make any clear predictions of what the future holds for Cat Island’s gassy minerals. Nonetheless, my shopkeeper friend A. does have one last quip that perfectly reflects not only his own personal fate but that of his country, “If I don’t break even this summer, they are taking me to jail”. In brief, hydrates are the last thing on anyone’s mind these days.
Sources and Links
“Natural gas hydrates – A promising source of energy” by Yuri Makogon in Journal of Natural Gas Science and Engineering (21 February 2010)
“Preliminary report on the commercial viability of gas production from natural gas hydrates” by Matthew Walsh et al in Energy Economics (25 March 2009)
“The world’s next power surge” by Ellen Licking in Business Week (December 14 1998)
“Research projects to study the sea floor and sub-bottom sediments funded by the recent European commission framework programs: the IGME participation” by Perissoratis C. and Ioakim Chr. in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece (May 2010)