Natural Gas  

Natural gas is a combustible gaseous fossil fuel. While contributing less CO2 to the atmosphere than other fuels, it is still a serious greenhouse gas. (The average U.S. natural gas plant emits 800 to 850 lbs of CO2 per megawatt, whereas coal plants emit an average 1,768 llbs of CO2 per megawatt.)
Transporting natural gas by tanker can involve similar risks to transporting oil by sea. With its cost receding in recent years, more attention is being paid to its commercial uses. The main products of the combustion of natural gas are CO2 and water vapor.
Shale gas deposits promise vast supplies, but introduces the problem of "fracking"
which has serious critics.  (Pictured: Natural gas rig in Colorado.)

Page on Fracking   

Natural gas our savior? Not so fast . . .  

(November 2012) Just as happened with ethanol, scientists and engineers are starting to take a more serious look at natural gas, and the story turns out to be more complicated and less ideal than it originally seemed. If you could magically flip a switch and turn all existing coal plants in to gas plants, you would indeed cut CO2 emissions significantly. But there is no magic switch, and therein lies a problem. According to a recent study, the most surprising thing found is that unless you switch to a form of energy that cuts emissions really drastically you basically don’t get any real effect. The bottom line that emerges from the study is that by the time we could switch from coal to gas, there would already be so much more CO2 and methane in the atmosphere that we’d be much deeper in the hole. Because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for so long once it’s up there, a switch to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100. link


  • Growth of natural gas supplies
  • Different types of natural gas
  • Safety issues
  • The global scene
  • Flaring                             
Growth of natural gas supplies

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are 1,744 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the U.S. or enough to supply the country for 90 years at current rates of production. The EPA is conducting a $1.9 million study, expected to be completed by 2012, that will look at the effect on groundwater, surface water, human health and the environment in general (A drilling stands over a natural gas well in Colorado/Credit: Colorado Geological Survey)

July 2016: New gas infrastructure will completely undermine U.S. climate goals.  If the United States continues with its current natural gas policy, there is no way for the country to meet its emissions reduction goals, according to a report released by Oil Change International. link 

January 2016: Natural gas likely overtook coal as top U.S. power source in 2015. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed that power plants used more gas than coal to produce electricity in five of the first 10 months of 2015, including the last four months data was available - July, August, September and October. link

June 2016: Natural Gas: bridge or barrier to a clean energy future? The primary argument in support of natural gas is the fact that it is cleaner than coal and can be conveniently and cost-effectively substituted for it in power generation. Although on its face true, the claim should be considered in a real-world context. What I am saying is beware! Adopting natural gas as a go-to transitional energy source is fraught with danger; a danger in the nature of “too big to fail” or, as in this case, “too big to be replaced” by clean renewable energy sources. A danger naturally brought about when too much money is invested in one place or on one technology or resource class. Does anyone honestly believe that natural gas interests are going to simply strand these investments, gradually or otherwise? Natural gas is not clean. What it has going for it is: domestic availability; currently low price; relative cleanliness as compared to the dirtiest fossil fuel; and compatibility with the existing power structure. link

July 2013: Shale gas now represents 30% of U.S. natural gas supplies
, up from 1% a little over a decade ago. The surge in production has pushed gas prices to historic lows, leading utilities increasingly to choose it over coal. Natural gas supplied just under one-third of U.S. electricity last year, up from 16% in 2000, while coal-fired electricity dropped from 50% to about 36% over the same period. Natural gas, which is primarily methane, produces about half the CO2 of coal when combusted. But leakage of methane throughout the production and distribution systems cancels out some of those gains. (To what extent isn't clear.)
Update: The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates in the 
Annual Energy Outlook 2017 that about 13.5 trillion cubic feet of dry natural gas was produced directly from shale and tight oil resources in the United States in 2015. This was about 50% of total U.S. dry natural gas production in 2015. link  

August 2012. Natural gas now equal to coal as energy source. In April 2012, for the first time on record, natural gas equaled coal as a source of electric power generation, according to EIA. link

August 2011: Drastic 80% reduction in gas estimates announced. Federal geologists published new estimates this week for the amount of natural gas that exists in a giant rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Virginia. The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, which is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal (EIA) Energy Information Administration. The EIA will slash its official estimate for the Marcellus Shale by nearly 80%, a move that is likely to generate new questions about how the agency calculates its estimates and why it was so far off in its projections. link

June 2011: IEA warns natural gas will not prevent global warming. Natural gas is not the "panacea" to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency. Reliance on gas would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise, according to the IEA. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states. link

Optimistic forecasts for natural gas supplies in US.

December 2010: The US Energy Information Agency forecasts that natural gas will represent 62% of new capacity by 2035, the greatest chunk coming from shale gas, which has already increased production 14-fold over the last decade. That finding could give a boost to the natural gas industry, which has been fighting a battle over the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the technique that has helped the industry grow but brings water quality and other environmental concerns. link  
November 2010: Deutsche Bank AG analysts predict natural gas, which creates about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, would comprise 35% of America's electric power generation by 2030, an increase from the current 23%. At the same time, they predict coal's share of the power grid would drop from 47% to 22%, with clean coal accounting for just one percent of the diminished total. The report says the developments would allow the United States to achieve a 44% reduction in CO2 emissions from the electric power sector by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. link

June 2010: An MIT report suggests natural gas will provide an increasing share of America's energy over the next several decades doubling its share from 20% to 40%, mostly at the expense of coal. link

July 2012: Will gas become too expensive? With prices that are way below production costs a fiasco is playing out in the natural gas industry that doesn’t happen often in a free market, and when it does happen, it’s usually short and brutal for all involved. Producers, if at all possible, are switching to drilling for oil and natural gas liquids (priced like oil), still a profitable activity. Thus, capital is now being channeled to where it can make money. Drilling for dry natural gas will continue to decline as the long delayed sweep of creative destruction is scouring the industry. The largest producer, ExxonMobil, given its monumental size and worldwide focus on oil, will weather the fallout just fine. But the second largest producer, Chesapeake Energy, is struggling. It’s trying to dump assets to raise cash to deal with its mountain of decomposing debt. Other producers that haven’t diversified away from dry natural gas are in a similar quandary.  link
March 2010: 
Shale gas could supply 100 years of consumption. The natural gas shale boom in North America has more than doubled discovered gas resources and can supply more than a century of consumption at current rates, an IHS CERA study said. However the study said uncertainties about shale gas include stringency of future carbon legislation and viability of carbon capture and storage technology, and concerns about how hydraulic fracturing might affect underground water tables has prompted Congress to consider increased regulation. link

September 2009: Natural Gas generation growth by 2025.  According to EPA projections, without any new legislation, and if current policies remain in place, there would be nearly 30% more power generated by gas by 2025 than in 2015, while coal fired generation would grow by a more modest 7%. But legislators from coal-producing states appear committed to keeping coal as the nation’s primary producer of power as debate proceeds on a climate bill.  link
Different type of natural gas

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission energy from natural gas accounts for 24% of total energy consumed in the United States. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels. It has fewer emissions of sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen than coal or oil, and when it is burned it leaves almost no ash particles. Being a cleaner fuel is one reason that the use of natural gas, especially for electricity generation, has grown so much and is expected to grow even more in the future because of increasing world supply. For both power stations and transport of course, there are environmental concerns: as with any fossil fuel, burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide which is a significant greenhouse gas. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less CO2 than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal.  

The process of turning natural gas into a liquid removes most of the water vapor, butane, propane, and other gases that are typically found in regular natural gas, leaving predominantly methane. There are differences between Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). link  

CNGNow reports there are currently about 250,000 natural gas vehicles (NGVs) on the roads in the USA today, less than 0.1% of total U.S. vehicles – mostly owned by fleets. The heavy- and medium-duty market segments have seen the most use with city transit buses, refuse trucks and delivery vans. Compressed natural gas (CNG) has been used widely for personal transportation within the light-duty segment in highly developed nations for many years. In fact, natural gas-rich countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Iran already have more than 1 million NGVs each, and even gas importer Italy exceeds 700,000. Light-duty trucks, SUVs and sedans can all be powered with CNG while retaining nearly the same engine power and fuel efficiency as their gasoline-powered counterparts. link

Safety issues

January 2014: Earth tremors cause the Netherlands to cut gas production. The Netherlands will cut gas production at Groningen, the largest gas field in Western Europe, by about a quarter over the next three years bowing to public concerns over earth tremors in the area. "The studies showed that there are risks and consequences, including earthquakes," of the gas extraction in Groningen, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at his weekly press conference. "They not only cause material damage but also serious emotional damage. The cabinet understands that people are worried." The first tremors were reported in 1986 nearby in Assen, and since then about 1,000 have been recorded in the area, with a maximum magnitude of 3.6 on the Richter scale. link

October 2009: Curbing climate change by sealing gas leaks: Because of leaks at oil storage tanks, gas fields etc. some three trillion cubic feet of methane leak into the air every year, with Russia and the U.S. the leading sources according to the EPA's official estimate. (This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States.) Unless monitoring is greatly expanded, they say, such emissions could soar as global production of natural gas increases over the next few decades. EnCana, the Canadian gas producer, using infra-red cameras detects leaks and says fixing them is relatively easy, saving energy and money. It is also a cheap, effective way of blunting climate change that could potentially be replicated thousands of times over, from Wyoming to Siberia,  energy experts say. link

Is natural gas safe? Will it harm the environment?   read here

August 2012: Leakage control leads to less methane in the air. A team of atmospheric chemists report there’s a lot less methane leaking from oil and gas wells than there used to be. Methane is a major component of natural gas, and, said lead author Isobel Simpson, of the University of California-Irvine, in an interview, “as natural gas has become more valuable, it’s being captured rather than vented or flared.” However, an increase may occur due to the expansion in fracking. link
(See more under "Flaring at bottom of page.)
No longer a waste gas - link

The global scene

As it becomes a major international commodity, for Russia it has become a geopolitical weapon by turning on and then off a pipeline to Ukraine and Western Europe. The great advantage of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is that it can be traded over huge distances and is no longer fixed by the length and geography of pipelines. Many environmentalists and energy analysts view natural gas as a natural bridge fuel between the dominant fossil fuels of today and the renewable fuels of tomorrow. This gas is now being piped and shipped around the world. Six giant plants capable of cooling and liquefying gas for export are due to come on line in 2009. Countries such as Qatar, Russia, Indonesia and Yemen are investing $48 billion, and a seventh plant in Malaysia is being upgraded.  Even though there is a gas glut in the USA, gas industry executives expect that liquefied gas imports into the United States will at least triple in the second half of this year. Until the last few years, LNG was a high-priced necessity for countries that did not produce their own gas supplies or have access to piped reserves; but it now has become a cheap economic driver for countries like Japan with few energy resources.  link

March 2015: The natural gas gamble – a risky bet on a clean energy future. Noting the need to transition to renewable energy, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report warning of an over-reliance on natural gas. The U.S. electricity sector is in the midst of a major change. As power producers retire aging coal plants, they are turning to natural gas to generate electricity at an unprecedented rate. While this rapid shift is providing important near-term environmental and economic benefits, strong evidence suggests that becoming too reliant on natural gas poses numerous and complex risks, including persistent price volatility and rising global warming emissions. link

April 2015: LNG losing upper hand due to volatility in the marketplace. Shell’s big bet on liquefied natural gas (LNG) is far from a sure thing. It is LNG, not oil, that’s truly behind the European energy giant’s $70 billion acquisition of Britain’s BG Group, which was announced. Together, the two firms would control a significant amount of the world’s LNG supply, besting rival ExxonMobil by a considerable margin. But while being bigger is usually better in the energy world, it may not pay off as well when it comes to the volatile and niche LNG marketplace. LNG suppliers used to have the upper hand, but that advantage has degraded sharply over the last few years as demand growth has waned. Contract terms are now shorter and less lucrative for suppliers. To make matters worse, rising construction and maintenance costs have made LNG imports less appealing to many customers, all while continued tepid demand is causing supply to build up. link

May 2013: Shell to invest $30 billion in Australia. Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, plans to invest $30 billion in Australia over the next five years,  but has delayed going ahead with the project due to high inflation in the country. While the intention is to invest in Australia, Shell warned the country needs to adopt friendlier tax policies. link

November 2009: Gas reserves soar. "If Europe was to convert all coal-fired power stations to gas they would reduce emissions by 40%," claims Rune Bjornson who heads the gas division at Norwegian energy giant Statoil, pointing to how gas power stations emit about a third less than modern coal-fired power stations and about two-thirds less than old ones. link

Natural gas in the United States currently costs about $8 per thousand cubic feet (July 2012) down from a peak of about than $13 in 2008. On average, world spot prices for liquefied natural gas cargoes have come down by more than two-thirds since summer 2008. link  [As of December 2016, the price was $9.06 - link for updates.]

Flaring is the practice of burning gas that is deemed uneconomical to collect and sell. Flaring is also used to burn gases that would otherwise present a safety problem. It is common to flare natural gas that contains hydrogen sulfide (i.e., sour gas), in order to convert the highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas into less toxic compounds. (Pictured: A gas flare at an oil refinery in the Sorovskoye field in Siberia - creditITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy) Russia Flares emit a host of air pollutants, depending on the chemical composition of the gas being burned and the efficiency and temperature of the flare. Flaring results in hydrogen sulfide emissions if hydrogen sulfide is present in large enough amounts in the natural gas. link  (October 2012) Flaring mostly happens in remote areas where gas at the surface as an oil by-product cannot be brought to consumers. Flaring still wastes 140 billion cubic metres of gas a year - equivalent to a third of the annual gas consumption in the European Union. The practice emits around 400 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Environmentalists have called for all flaring to be banned. link     

May 2017: Flaring update. The World Bank estimates that the 16,000 flares worldwide produce around 350m tonnes of CO2 each year. Black carbon from sooty flames adds to the problems, especially across the northern hemisphere where it darkens arctic and mountain snow encouraging melting. The flared gas is also a wasted resource. Despite increases globally in 2016, some areas have improved with Iraq being the latest country to join the World Bank initiative to eliminate routine flaring by 2030 . link

December 2016: World Bank warns of rising gas flared by oil industry. In 2015,147 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas was flared at oil production sites around the world, up from 145bcm in 2014 and 141bcm in 2013. That is more than enough to provide the current annual electricity of the whole of Africa. The flares from numerous shale oil wells in the US can be seen from space. link

January 2016: 'Flaring' wastes 3.5% of world's natural gas. The United States has the greatest number of flares, but Russia leads the world in the total volume of flared natural gas. In 2012, the 143 billion cubic metres of gas flared led to the emission of more than 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, around 10% of the annual emissions of European Union member states. link

November 2016: New oil and gas rules announced aimed to cut waste. The U.S. Interior Department finalized a much anticipated new regulation aimed at the oil and gas industry that seeks to capture flared natural gas and corral “fugitive” emissions of methane that are escaping drilling operations on public and Native American lands.  link

April 2015: Flaring agreement reached with World Bank. Top oil-producing nations, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Angola, as well as Royal Dutch Shell and other companies say they will stop flaring natural gas by 2030 as part of a landmark agreement with the World Bank. The voluntary agreement will curb 40% of the global gas flaring that results in 300 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. link 

June 2015: Natural gas leaks negate climate benefits. The claim that natural gas is environmentally friendly hinges on how much methane leaks into the atmosphere during the production process. But the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund ) report adds weight to those who say methane leaks at natural gas sites can make the process nearly or as carbon-intensive as coal. The report also looked at venting and flaring, processes in which drilling sites purposefully let gas go into the atmosphere for a variety of reasons – usually for safety. link  

The World Bank Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership is a useful resource on goals to reduce gas flaring.    

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