South Korea Pitches New Energy Idea

By Evan Ramstad

April 16, 2008; Page A10

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president and economic leaders, on a scheduled visit to the U.S. starting Wednesday, plan to add a new twist to their pitch for business and investment: the country’s desire to become an energy producer.

South Korea, which imports all of its fossil fuels, discovered large underwater deposits of gas hydrates off its coast last year. Now, its leaders want the country to be at the forefront of commercializing the potential energy source, possibly with the help of U.S. companies and investors.

Mr. Lee is planning to speak in New York Wednesday on policy changes and what government officials here describe as an effort to “reintroduce” the country to outside investors. South Korea’s business image has been hurt in recent years by incidents that fed perceptions that Koreans don’t like foreign investment and businesses.

Mr. Lee won the presidency by promising to give a jolt to South Korea’s economy, but the prospect of recession in the U.S. and its ripple effects around the world pose a threat to his goals. Attracting foreign investment, which has declined in the past two years, is one way the country’s new leaders hope to boost growth.

“We will open up our markets and strengthen competition at a very, very fast pace,” Lee Youn-ho, South Korea’s Minister of Knowledge Economy, said in an interview. “It will be very much different from past administrations.”

During the U.S. trip, the leaders plan to tout investment-friendly steps Korea has taken, such as cutting red tape and business taxes. And they plan to discuss opportunities for foreign companies in several sectors, including energy development.

Gas hydrates are crystalline solids of methane and water molecules. They have been found in large quantities also off the coasts of China, India, Taiwan and the U.S. Some researchers estimate that gas-hydrate reserves exist in quantities far larger than all other known fossil fuels.

But the fuel is stable only under high pressure and low temperature, which makes it expensive and complicated to develop. In addition, methane released during extraction could contribute to global warming.

In meetings in New York and Washington, the South Korean delegation plans to seek support for its budding gas-hydrate research. South Korea has already spent about $70 million, chiefly to determine the size of a gas-hydrate field about 83 miles off its east coast.

Mr. Lee, the economy minister, whose responsibilities include energy, said he will ask the U.S. Department of Energy to allow Korean scientists to join a gas-hydrate exploration project in Alaska. “We would like Korean engineers to participate in this project and also share technology,” he said.

Energy development is so new to South Korea that few of its universities offer majors in geology, petroleum engineering or other related studies. “We don’t have experts in that field, but this administration will make it a priority to nurture that talent,” the minister said.

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