China Taps Lode of ‘Fire Ice’ in South China Sea

Tensions are already flaring up in the South China Sea, but things just got a lot more flammable — literally.

China announced what could be a big breakthrough this week, tapping for first time so-called ‘fire ice,’ or natural gas trapped deep under the ocean floor. It’s a potentially explosive development for an energy-starved country looking for additional sources of natural gas — but it could also spark further tensions in a part of the world where Beijing’s territorial ambitions are already colliding with its neighbors.

China mined the unique form of natural gas hydrate, gas trapped in ice crystals, on the ocean floor 4,000 feet beneath the surface, the Chinese Geological Survey announced Thursday. The CGS said it was able to extract methane for seven straight days in a landmark production experiment that moves methane hydrate production one step closer to commercial reality.

The experiment took place some 175 miles southeast of Hong Kong — smack dab in the middle of the hotly-contested South China Sea. The strategic waterway is the source of simmering geopolitical tensions between China and its regional adversaries, and is the source of increasing friction between Beijing and Washington. (And between Beijing and others: On Friday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said China threatened war if Manila tried to drill for oil in disputed waters.)

The undersea oil and gas riches in the South China Sea had already raised the stakes in the geopolitical fight in the region. A new, potentially vast, source of energy on the ocean floor won’t do much to dampen tensions.

Also called “combustible ice,” methane hydrates are natural gas trapped in the latticework of ice in sea sediments and permafrost. It burns easily and like all natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil. Potentially, the world has an enormous amount — there is perhaps twice as much gas in methane hydrates as in all the conventional gas deposits in the world — but today…

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