Eastern Japan City Reaps Rewards of Cheap Natural Gas

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A man gestures toward a gas well that pumps up water containing natural gas in the Chiba prefectural village of Chosei, adjacent to Mobara.

As gas prices soar along with all forms of energy due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the weak yen, a Chiba Prefecture town has seen its costs remain cheap and unchanged for a decade.

Mobara City and the surrounding area produces its own natural gas, resulting in prices around 60% of those in Tokyo — and household gas bills are set to become even cheaper from February to October with a government subsidy aimed at keeping rates in check.

Local governments have taken notice, and are using the reasonable gas prices as a means to woo people to relocate to the area.

Surface bubbles

“Restaurants need lots of gas,” said Kaoru Suzuki, 50, who runs a Japanese-cuisine restaurant in Mobara. “I’m very grateful that the bills don’t rise.”

Otaki Gas Co., a Mobara-based gas company that supplies about 170,000 households in and around the city, said it has not changed its gas prices since 2013.

The monthly gas bill for the average Mobara household is ¥5,310, which will fall by about ¥1,000 from February when the subsidies kick in. Compare that with ¥7,630 in January for a similar household supplied by Tokyo Gas Co., which had been about ¥5,410 in December 2021 — about the same as Otaki Gas. Even after applying the government subsidy, the Tokyo Gas figure will remain high at about ¥6,960.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bubbles are seen on the surface of a river in the town of Mutsuzawa, Chiba Prefecture.

Minami-Kanto gas field

Locally produced natural gas is the key factor in holding down gas bills. In the town of Mutsuzawa — adjacent to Mobara — bubbles can be observed floating on the surface of a river. “That’s natural gas bubbling up from the ground beneath,” said an Otaki Gas official.

The bubbles emanate from a leak in the Minami-Kanto gas field that runs primarily beneath the Boso Peninsula, which spans most of Chiba Prefecture. The gas field contains methane dissolved in underground water, and has about 368.5 billion cubic meters of potentially extractable gas — an amount capable of providing natural gas for all of Japan for three years.

To avoid ground subsidence, only about 400 million cubic meters is extracted each year, much of it for local consumption. People in the area have been using the gas since the Meiji period (1867-1912), and many use it in their homes.

“While it may not be possible to extract large amounts of gas, it’s nevertheless significant that the area has a source of energy that can be produced and consumed locally,” said Tomochika Tokunaga, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Frontier Sciences. “It’s important to think about how to use it effectively so it becomes an appealing feature of the area.”

Impromptu disaster response

Neighboring cities and towns are seeking ways to make the most of the extracted gas as a local energy source.

The Michi-no-eki rest area facility in Mutsuzawa uses the gas to generate electricity. When Typhoon No. 15 hit the area in 2019, the facility offered local residents free hot showers and cell phone battery charging, in effect serving as a town-based disaster response center.

“Having a cheap and stable supply of gas is a real plus for Mobara,” said a municipal government official. “We’d like to beat the drum about our gas at events that promote relocation.”