What is Natural Gas? Is Natural Gas Clean Energy? (Explained)

Natural gas is one of the fastest-growing energy sources. In 2020, natural gas was the largest source of energy generation in the United States.

Nearly 50% of homes in the United States use natural gas for space heating and water heating.

Natural gas continues to gain popularity as it is cleaner, less expensive, and more efficient than other fossil fuels.

What is Natural Gas?

Natural gas is a non-renewable, naturally occurring fossil fuel that is created over hundreds of millions of years. It contains many different compounds and is a mixture of hydrocarbon gases.

Natural gas mainly consists of methane, a compound with one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH4). It also contains smaller amounts of other higher alkanes, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or helium.

Natural gas is a colorless and odorless gas that has many uses, including electricity, cooking, and manufacturing.

What is Natural Gas Made Of?

Natural gas takes millions of years to form. It has a long processing process that takes place deep beneath the surface.

Natural gas deposits are found both on land and offshore on the ocean floor. It is stored in naturally occurring reserves near other solid and liquid hydrocarbon beds, such as coal and crude oil.

How Does Natural Gas Form?

As plants and animals decay, the remaining material builds up beneath the earth’s surface and on the ocean floor. Sometimes the material is mixed with sand, silt, and calcium carbonate depending on the environment.

Over time, layers are formed and compact. During compaction, the layers are subject to excessive heat and pressure. This combination can transform the decaying plant and animal material that is rich in carbon and hydrogen into oil and natural gas.

In some places, natural gas moves into large cracks and spaces between the layering rocks.

Before natural gas can be used by humans, there is a lengthy extraction process that can be costly. Natural gas is commonly extracted by drilling vertically into the earth’s surface, where a well is created to access the gas reserves.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) extracts natural gas by drilling horizontally in order to expand the amount of gas that can be accessed by a well. Hydraulic fracturing makes the well more productive, but it can also have environmental consequences.

Two Types of Natural Gas

Natural gas resources are known as either conventional or unconventional.

1. Conventional Natural Gas

Is found within reservoirs in porous rock, such as sandstone. They are usually found in oil reservoir deposits. Conventional natural gas is easier to produce using traditional drilling methods and pumping techniques.

2. Unconventional Natural Gas

Is found in tight non-porous rock formations, such as shale. These resources are recovered through a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. These methods are much more difficult and have a greater impact on the environment.

Is Natural Gas a Clean Energy?

The answer to this question is not that simple. While natural gas is the cleanest and most efficient fossil fuel when burned, it is still a fossil fuel that produces water vapor and carbon dioxide during combustion.

During combustion, fossil fuels contribute to climate change as they release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

However, burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of many air pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal or petroleum. For example, natural gas produces 45% less carbon dioxide than coal, 30% less than oil, and 15% less than wood.

The exploration, drilling, and production of natural gas can have several environmental effects.

During exploration, vegetation and soil can be disturbed by all the activities (e.g. vehicles, drilling).

The drilling of a well and laying pipelines can require clearing and leveling an area, which affects ecosystems, habitats, and biodiversity.

In addition, drilling activities produce air pollution and may disturb people, wildlife, and water resources. The extraction of natural gas can produce large volumes of contaminated water that require proper handling, storage, and treatment to ensure it does not pollute land and other water systems.

Natural gas wells and pipelines often have engines to run equipment and compressors, which produce air pollutants and noise.

Fracking requires vast quantities of water, as it uses highly pressurized water, chemicals, and sand to split open rock formations. This process can deplete an area’s water table and impact aquatic ecosystems and habitats. It also generates highly toxic and often radioactive wastewater.

Fracking can cause micro-earthquakes that have the potential to cause structural damage to buildings or underground networks of pipes and cables. As a result, this process is highly controversial as it has significant environmental impacts but also provides economic opportunities and is a reliable source of energy.

Although it is not as clean as wind or solar power, natural gas is considered a key role in the transition to clean energy. Most of the natural gas that is consumed in the United States is produced domestically.

What is Natural Gas Used for in Homes?

Natural gas is versatile with multiple uses. It has become an increasingly popular source of energy in homes across the United States.

In order to take advantage of natural gas, the system and appliance must be specifically designed to run on this type of fuel and a direct line must be installed on your property.

Common Use of Natural Gas in Residential Homes

  • Water heaters
  • Clothes dryers
  • Fireplaces
  • Barbeques
  • Lights for your yard
  • Heating your swimming pool
  • Oven
  • Stovetop
  • Furnaces

What is Natural Gas Used for Commercially?

The industrial sector accounts for about one-third of natural gas consumption in the US. The use of natural gas in the industrial sector is similar to its use in residential homes.

Common uses of natural gas commercially

  • Heat buildings and water
  • Operate refrigeration and cooling equipment
  • Fuel to manufacture products
  • Fuel for trucks
  • Power source for farm equipment

Natural gas is an ingredient used to manufacture several products, including fertilizers, antifreeze, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and fabrics. It is also used to manufacture chemicals, such as ammonia, methanol, butane, ethane, propane, and acetic acid.

In the agriculture sector, a lot of farmers use natural gas as a backup to electricity as it is more reliable.

Natural gas can be used as an alternative fuel for cars, buses, trucks, and other commercial vehicles. It is estimated that there are more than 5 million natural gas vehicles worldwide and over 150,000 in the United States. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Natural Gas

Natural gas has several distinct advantages, especially over other fossil fuels, but it also has disadvantages that should be considered. 

Advantages

  • Abundant
  • Reliable
  • Cheaper
  • Easily transported
  • Produces less overall pollution
  • Safer and easier to store compared to other fossil fuels

Disadvantage

  • Fossil fuel
  • Non-renewable resources
  • Emits carbon dioxide
  • Requires extraction
  • Combustible material
  • Contributes to greenhouse gases and climate change

Is Natural Gas Sustainable?

A key aspect of sustainability is ensuring that the needs of today do not compromise the needs of future generations.

  • While fossil fuels continue to meet our energy needs, they are non-renewable, meaning when reserves run out, they will not regenerate, and they contribute to climate change. Fossil fuels produce greenhouse gas emissions that are harmful to the environment.
  • Natural gas generates CO2 during combustion. It consists mostly of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
  • Natural gas is one of the largest energy resources available in North America. It is estimated that the natural gas reserves that have been explored within the United States are large enough to provide enough supply for the next 92 years.
  • Because of its abundance, natural gas is cheap to consume and has generated millions of jobs within the United States.
  • Natural gas is considered a non-renewable resource because it comes from a depleting resource that does not replenish. It is sometimes referred to as a bridge toward renewable energy. While it is not as sustainable as renewable energy sources (e.g. wind or solar), it is a step in the right direction.
  • There is no perfect option, even renewable energy sources have some impact on the environment. It is important to weigh the pros and cons and understand the compounding impact.
  • While natural gas provides an inexpensive and reliable energy source that is cleaner than traditional fossil fuels (e.g. oil), it is not entirely sustainable.
  • Long-term, there are better alternatives, such as wind and solar energy, but they remain more expensive and less accessible to the average person.

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