Friday, June 22, 2007

Four Hundred Billion Cubic Meters Of Natural Gas

Four Hundred Billion Cubic Meters Of Natural Gas

In the aftermath of the natural gas explosion which demolished a building in Tokyo on Tuesday 19 June, some interesting facts have been emerging. It seems that metropolitan Tokyo and part of the neighboring prefecture of Chiba sit on a natural gas field.

If you drill down, then you can tap into a gas reservoir computed to contain four hundred billion cubic meters of natural gas. This is not exactly like having Kuwait in your backyard, but its enough to supply the needs of all the cities in Japan for ten years.

And there's nobody guarding this stuff. No Nigerian militants, no Iraqi jihadists, none of Vladimir Putin's shock troops. Nobody.

So you think somebody would do the logical thing and drill down to suck up the gas and sell it. And apparently someone already has, since the ASAHI SHIMBUN reports that "In Chiba Prefecture, nine companies supply natural gas for homes and other facilities."

The building that exploded was the annex of the nine-story Shibuya Shoto Onsen Shiespa, near Bunkamura Street in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. The annex of a basement, which is where the natural gas is believed to have accumulated, and, above that, some rooms used by staff members.

The associated nine-story building is a woman-only bathhouse, using geothermal water pumped up from 1,500 meters underground. Natural gas came up with the hot water, and it seems that a gas separator which should have neutralized the danger posed by the gas failed.

The onsen did not have a gas detector.

As of March this year, 144 outfits in Tokyo were using geothermal water, and there is no regulatory authority supervising the associated gas safety issue.

There are, however, safety regulations mandating precautions which you must take when drilling down into the gas field. These regulations came into force after a fire in Kita Ward.

Way back when, I used to live in Kita Ward, a pretty gritty semi-industrial area in the north of Tokyo. I lived there in a high rise apartment, and was highly conscious of the earthquake risk, but it never occurred to be that I was sleeping on top of billions and billions of cubic meters of potentially explosive gas.

Back in February 2005, some workers were drilling for geothermal water when gas caught fire, and the flames went roaring up into the air to a height of about ten meters. These days, if you want to drill for hot water, you must make sure that, quite apart from anything else, you have a gas detector on hand.

When you're living in the city of Auckland, New Zealand, you're highly conscious of the fact that you're living in a volcanic environment, because the city is dotted with small volcanic cones, perhaps three hundred meters or so tall. For some years I lived right beside one of those cones, Mount Eden, and a lot of gardens in the area had walls made of volcanic rock.

Here in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, we're on the Pacific rim of fire. But, in Tokyo, the landscape does not insist on its geology. Concrete dominates, and its easy to forget about the big volcanoes sitting a lot closer than the horizon, these including Mount Fuji and (a lot nearer than that) the islands of Oshima and Miyakejima. The exploded onsen and the subsequent geological revelations have completely revised the Tokyo of my imagination.

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