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The Coming Ice Age in Energy Security

Worldwide dependence on fossil fuels costs far more than the price of a barrel of crude oil. The current Middle East crisis, the gradual transformation of Central Asia into a military outpost of the West, and weak regimes in other key producers, such as Russia and Venezuela, are sobering reminders of the fragility of global energy security.

With the world economy remaining dependent on fossil fuels well into this century, energy vulnerability will only increase in the foreseeable future. Conservation can moderate, but not reverse, rising consumption in the industrialized countries and the developing world. Renewable energy sources are promising, but they will not soon replace fossil fuels.

Yet there is hope for an abundant, clean energy source that would boost global security by placing production closer to consumers. Surprisingly, the energy source is a kind of ice. When natural gas seeps up from within the earth and combines with water at and below the seafloor under certain conditions of low temperature and high pressure, the result is gas hydrate-a substance that most people have never heard of, but that is common geologically. Once the gas is liberated from the frozen water, it can be collected in wells and put into pipelines, just like ordinary natural gas.

Gas extracted from hydrate reserves is exactly the same as the natural gas in use currently. Natural gas is increasingly today's fossil fuel of choice, currently accounting for more than 20% of the world's primary energy consumption. This is mainly because it burns cleaner than coal or oil. The only byproducts of gas combustion are carbon dioxide, water, and small amounts of nitrogen oxides. While carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, natural gas produces less of it than other fossil fuels.