Natural gas is an energy resource we obtain from deep beneath the surface of the Earth. It consists mostly of methane, while containing a small amount of non-hydrocarbon gases and hydrocarbon gas liquids. We can use this energy resource to make chemicals, various materials, or as a fuel source.
Natural gas formed from the remains of organic life. Plants and animals decayed, then built up in thick layers beneath the group. As these layers were buried under increasing levels of silt, sand, and rock, the heat and pressure helped to transform this organic material. It is the same process which helped to form coal and some petroleum.
Natural gas may occur in coal deposits as coalbed methane. It may also form in formations of sandstone, shale, and sedimentary rock, where it is called shale gas.
Here are the pros and cons of natural gas to consider.
Pros of Natural Gas
1. It is an abundant source of energy.
In the United States, 2013 survey results, when combined with consumption rates, showed that there was enough present to handle demands through at least 2100. Even when record levels of natural gas were produced in 2015, at 79 billion cubic feet per day, the availability of this major source of energy remains. About 33% of all electricity production came through natural gas consumption in 2015 for the United States, which was equal to coal power and above the 19% contribution from nuclear energy.
2. It is a bridge fuel between fossil fuels and renewable fuels.
By definition, natural gas is a fossil fuel because it was created from the decay of organic materials. Unlike other fossil fuels, however, natural gas burns much cleaner when it is consumed. It emits about 50% of the carbon dioxide when it is consumed. That makes it more of a bridge fuel than a true fossil fuel, helping our societies move toward a cleaner fuel infrastructure without needing to completely change what we’ve already built up in our energy networks.
3. It is an affordable fuel resource.
In March 2016, natural gas prices fell to their lowest levels since 1998, reaching $1.57 per 1 million BTUs. Even when prices are higher for natural gas, around $3.00 per 1 million BTUs, the comparative price of crude oil is much higher. When crude oil is priced at $49 per barrel, that is the equivalent of paying almost $8.50 per 1 million BTUs of natural gas. On the average day, natural gas is 4 times cheaper than crude oil, despite the fact that the organic processes which formed them are so similar.
4. It provides numerous employment opportunities.
In the United States, the natural gas industry supports almost 3 million jobs. From 2007-2012, jobs within the natural gas industry grew at a 40% rate, adding over 160,000 new opportunities. Although economic recoveries have been somewhat slow in the natural gas industry, especially with lower pricing levels for the resource, job levels have remained mostly constant since 2012, adding billions of dollars to the U.S. GDP each year.
5. It makes renewable energy a viable industry.
Natural gas requires a minimal adjustment to the current infrastructure for energy deliveries around the world. Because of its bridging design, its distribution encourages the development and distribution of renewable energy resources at the same time. When natural gas is combined with solar, wind, and hydropower, it creates a reliable system of electricity generation that offers a resilient, low-carbon mix of energy that makes it possible to hedge future energy risks.
6. It works with current global infrastructures.
When natural gas is extracted from a well, it must be treated to avoid having the methane damage the transportation systems and network. Once it is cleaned, it can be shipped almost anywhere, using pipelines, trucking, large ships, and other common transportation methods. That process allows us the opportunity to ship this energy resource to almost any location in the world today.
7. It can be accessed globally.
The processes required to access natural gas are not a proprietary technology. Any nation with enough resources to provide the equipment, labor, and fracturing components can access a natural gas reserve if one is available to them. The extraction technologies are very similar to what is used for crude oil. Many natural gas deposits are near oil reserves too, which gives some nations access to two fuel resources instead of just one.
8. It supports our agricultural industries.
Natural gas is used by chemical industries to produce a variety of different products. Chemicals and plastics are the most common items produced. Natural gas is also an affordable energy resource in the production of hydrogen, which helps this fuel become the source of fertilizer products that are used on crops around the world.
9. It requires less labor to produce usable fuels.
When natural gas is compared to coal, it requires less labor to access the fuel resource. Natural gas is also less disruptive to the environment, which provides another labor benefit. Instead of mining the coal, which sometimes removes entire hillsides to extract energy, the ground stays relatively intact during the extraction process. That makes it a safer energy resource for local, national, and international consumption.
10. It co-exists with other valuable energy resources.
Many of the products that are extracted with natural gas are used for a variety of different products that we use today. Helium is often found with natural gas deposits, along with coal, crude oil, and similar hydrocarbon fuels to help us create thousands of different products.
Cons of Natural Gas
1. It is harmful to the environment in its natural state.
We must remember that natural gas is primarily methane. Although methane doesn’t remain in the planet’s atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, it has an impact during its half-life that m ay be up to 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. In a 20-year period, methane may be over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Over 60% of the methane in our atmosphere comes from man-made activities, with one-third of that amount coming from the natural gas or petroleum industries.
2. It is a finite resource.
Natural gas is formed from the decay, heating, and compression of organic material that may be hundreds of millions of years old. Although we have extensive resources available to us at the moment, that reserve is not a promise of finding new reserves. At some point, we must consider the fact that there may not be natural gas to use for our power and fuel needs. That is why bridging toward renewable fuels through natural gas makes sense. It allows us to continue using the benefits of natural gas, while we also move our infrastructure toward using more renewables.
3. It offers a high risk of transportation leaks.
More than 300,000 miles of pipeline are located in the United States right now, supporting the natural gas industry. When leaks do occur, whether a well blows out or a pipeline leaks, the amount of methane which enters the atmosphere can be quite large. Just one leak in Southern California, which began in October 2015, put over 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere. Stanford University released findings in 2014 that suggests the amount of methane in the atmosphere may be 75% higher than the figures which are actually reported.
4. It may lead to regional earthquakes when accessed as a resource.
The primary method of obtaining natural gas is through a process called hydraulic fracturing. It is often referred to as simply “fracking.” To access the natural gas, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is placed into a well at a high pressure. This fractures the rock layer which keeps the natural gas trapped in the ground. The gas then flows up toward the surface, out of the well, and can be used for fuel at that point. The fracturing process may cause region earthquakes, some of which have reached above 5 on the Richter scale in some locations. More than 30 states are known to have some shale formations that may be affected by this potential negative.
5. It requires an aging infrastructure to process this fuel.
We have not upgraded our infrastructure that supports natural gas in more than two decades. Some leaks have gone on for more than 4 months before they were discovered. A large explosion in San Bruno, CA resulted in the deaths of 8 people and it completely leveled a neighborhood. With over 1.6 million miles of pipeline connecting homes to the infrastructure, most of which was built before 1970, new upgrades will be required to maintain the effectiveness of this system.
6. It is highly flammable.
Natural gas, like other refined fossil fuels, is a very combustible resource. What makes it dangerous is that it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. For that reason, energy distributors are required to add an odorant to the gas, so that leaks can be detected immediately to prevent harm from occurring. Although an average of 17 people are killed each year because of their interactions with natural gas, which is far fewer than most causes of death in the U.S., it only takes one leak to create a disastrous result.
7. It is not available to every nation.
Natural gas does not occur naturally, in vast quantities, underneath every nation. Some countries are forced to import natural gas if they wish to consume this energy resource, which creates a financial obligation to the country. For that reason, nations without a natural gas reserve work on their own energy resources, even if they are not as clean or effective. Our structure of commerce prevents the world from fully benefiting from this resource, which means emissions in our atmosphere are higher because of it.
8. It is difficult to transport natural gas in small quantities.
Most natural gas resources are transported at large quantities because it requires a certain amount of pressurization to be safely hauled or moved. For that reason, small quantities of natural gas are not easy to transport, which limits the overall effectiveness that natural gas is able to provide. We cannot use natural gas as we do other low-pressure fuels, such as gasoline, because of this disadvantage.
9. It has a lower energy density than other fuels.
When natural gas is compared to gasoline or diesel fuel, it has a lower overall energy density. That means we need to use more of it to achieve similar results. Although consuming natural gas creates less carbon in its output, that savings is somewhat offset by the fact that we’re burning more of it. There is a net savings to consider, which is why natural gas is beneficial, though this savings is difficult to find unless natural gas is consumed in large quantities.
The pros and cons of natural gas offer us access to a cleaner fossil fuel that is just as effective as others for providing us with the energy we need. There are certain hazards which we must account for when using this resource, including leaks and ignition events, to prevent potential disadvantages from occurring. If carefully managed, this could be a bridge fuel toward renewables. If not, then it will be another contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions which may be transforming our environment.