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. Shale gas deposits promise vast supplies, but introduces the problem of “fracking” which has serious critics.  (Pictured: A drilling stands over a natural gas well in Colorado/Credit: Colorado Geological Survey)

 See page on Fracking                    



  • 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), as of January 1, 2015, there were about 2,355 trillion cubic feet  of technically recoverable resources of dry natural gas in the United States. link

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

November 2017: Natural gas has no climate benefit and may make things worse. Studies find  natural gas plants don’t replace only high-carbon coal plants. They commonly replace very low carbon power sources like solar, wind, nuclear, and even energy efficiency, which is often overlooked as a major alternative to fossil fuels. 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’s cleaner than coal and can be conveniently and cost-effectively substituted for in power generation. Although on its face true, their claim should be considered in a real world context. 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. 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 2018: Clean energy is catching up to natural gas. Around 2015, just five years into gas’s rise to power, natural gas as the bridge to fossil fuel replacement began to disappear as wind and solar costs fell undercutting the cost of new gas in a growing number of regions. And then batteries which can “firm up” variable renewables also started getting cheap faster than anyone expected. It happened so fast that, in certain limited circumstances, solar+storage or wind+storage is already cheaper than new natural gas plants and able to play all the same roles. That means natural gas plants built today could be rendered noncompetitive well before their rated lifespan and become “stranded assets,” saddling utility ratepayers and investors with the costs of premature decommissioning. link

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

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.) link
Update: The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 15.8 trillion cubic feet of dry natural gas was produced directly from shale and tight oil resources in the United States in 2016. This was about 60% of total U.S. dry natural gas production in 2016. link

August 2012. Natural gas now equal to coal as energy source – 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 – 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. link

Different types 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 2018: Netherlands acts on earthquake damage. When the Groningen field was discovered in 1959 it was at the time the largest natural gas field in the world. Extraction has been reduced since 2014 due to damage inflicted on local homes and businesses. According to a lawsuit, an estimated 100,000 houses in Groningen have together lost an estimated €1bn in value due to seismic activity. Therefore the government said sourcing fuel should stop within four years. link

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. 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

November 2017: Natural gas emissions will blow Europe’s carbon budget at current levels. A new report concludes that Europe must phase out all fossil fuels, including gas, by 2035 and decrease emissions by 12% per year – far beyond its current ambitions – to keep to the Paris 2C pledge. EU countries have committed to burn more natural gas as a “bridging fuel”, because it offers a baseline alternative to wind and solar on cloudy and windless days. Continuing natural gas emissions at present levels will add 0.6C to global warming and, with other fossil fuel use, exhaust Europe’s carbon budget – the amount it can safely and fairly emit – in less than a decade. 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

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. 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. (Pictured: A gas flare at an oil refinery in the Sorovskoye field in Siberia – creditITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy) 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. 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. 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: Final rules on flaring announced by Interior Dept. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule – a final rule that will reduce the wasteful release of natural gas into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations on public and Indian 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.