"That will be the first marine gas hydrate test anywhere in the world," Collett said.

The U.S. Energy Department describes methane hydrate as a lattice of ice that traps methane molecules but does not bind them chemically. They are released when warmed or depressurized.

Methane comes from buried organic matter after it's ingested by bacteria or heated and cooked. The gas migrates upward, under high pressure and low temperature, and can combine with water to form methane hydrate.

Most deposits are below the sea floor off the continental shelf or under permafrost. Shallow pockets of methane hydrate release the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere and that process is exacerbated by climate warming.

Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity said research money should be poured into renewable resources, not more fossil fuel sources. Methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, though not as long-lived.

"Any exploration activities designed to extract methane hydrates run the risk of unintended consequences, of unleashing the monster," he said. Even if methane is extracted safely, burning it will add to climate warming, he said.

The world has a lot of methane hydrate. A Minerals Management Service study in 2008 estimated methane hydrate resources in the northern Gulf of Mexico at 21,000 trillion cubic feet, or 100 times current U.S. reserves of natural gas. The combined energy content of methane hydrate may exceed all other known fossil fuels, according to the DOE.

Not all is accessible, but high concentrations in permeable rock where there's existing drilling infrastructure would be among early candidates for development. The USGS in 2008 estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable gas within methane hydrate deposits on Alaska's North Slope.

It will not be simply dug out of the ground, Boswell said.

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