Issue Report: Natural gas

Is natural gas a good energy source for the 21st century?

Natural gas is believed by many to be a major alternative source of energy. It is a gaseous fossil fuel consisting primarily of methane but including significant quantities of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed prior to use as a consumer fuel — as well as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide. It is found in oil fields (associated) either dissolved or isolated in natural gas fields (non-associated), and in coal beds (as coalbed methane). It is considered a major alternative source of energy for a variety of reasons: 1. Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline and coal so can help replace these fuels in the fight against global warming, 2. It is abundant and easily extractable, 3. It is transportable so can be a cleaner source of fuel for cars, and 4. it is already fairly developed with strong supporting infrastructures. Natural gas is opposed primarily on the grounds that, while cleaner than other fossil fuels, natural gas still releases a significant quantity of CO2 when burned. In addition, natural gas is Methane – a significant greenhouse gas – and can be released into the atmosphere when drilling or transporting it in pipes or on ships. Natural gas, therefore, is considered a contributor to global warming in terms of the absolute quantity of greenhouse gases that it releases into the atmosphere. This is considered by some to be unacceptable in the context that 0-emission energy alternatives exist, such as wind, solar, hydro, and possibly nuclear. Much of the debate about natural gas, therefore, surrounds comparing natural gas with the available 0-emissions alternatives. Is it unacceptable to develop natural gas when it contributes to the global warming crisis (albeit by less than other fossil fuels)? Does this mean that we should focus on investing in and developing 0-emission alternatives (which do not contribute to global warming in the process of electricity-generation? Are these alternatives ready to be deployed on a massive scale? Are they close? Are they just as close to wide-scale use as natural gas, meaning that we are at a fork in the road? What choice should we make? Should we choose to make natural gas a major component of 21st century plans to combat global warming?
See Wikipedia’s natural gas article for more background.

Emissions: Is natural gas clean when burned for energy?

Natural gas can replace fossil fuels that emit more greenhouse gases

"Natural Gas -- A Fossil Fuel". Energy Information Administration.

“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 clean 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.”

Natural gas can smooth transition to renewable energy

Natural gas is seen by many of its supporters as a cleaner alternative to gasoline and coal, but in the context of it acting as a segue fuel onto even cleaner alternatives. The supporters of the Broadwater LNG terminal in Long Island Sound make this case: “Natural gas play a vital role in providing a bridge from traditional fossil fuels to a renewable energy future”.

Emissions from natural gas can be filtered out

"New Membrane Strips Carbon Dioxide From Natural Gas Faster And Better". ScienceDaily. 14 Oct. 2007
  • “A modified plastic material greatly improves the ability to separate global warming-linked carbon dioxide from natural gas as the gas is prepared for use, according to engineers at The University of Texas at Austin who have analyzed the new plastic’s performance.”

Natural gas is a fossil fuel that worsens global warming

While natural gas may be “cleaner” than burning other fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline, it is still a “dirty” energy resource, releasing significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. For an equivalent amount of heat energy, burning natural gas produces 70% as much carbon dioxide as burning petroleum and 55% as much as burning coal.[1] Natural gas is, therefore, only marginally cleaner than other fossil fuels. Burning it still contributes significantly to global warming. It should not, therefore, be held out as a solution.

Natural gas will lower fossil fuel prices and increase consumption.

Natural gas will simply relieve demand pressures on coal and petroleum and, subsequently, decrease prices. This will only make it easier for people to buy and consume oil and coal. Natural gas will not, therefore, replace coal and petroleum. It will only add to the absolute amount of fossil fuels we are burning, and greenhouse gases we are emitting.

Methane in natural gas is a major contributor to global warming

Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than C02. Methane is very prominent within “natural gas”. This is of concern because the drilling and transportation of natural gas will inevitably lead to leaks and large-scale “spills” that will release this highly harmful gas into the atmosphere and contribute substantially to global warming. These risks should not be taken.

0-emission renewables are a superior alternative to natural gas

Samantha Rose. "The questionable benefit of natural gas vehicles". TG Daily. 14 Aug 2008

“On the surface, natural gas cars seem alright, but the topic becomes a bit different when these cars are competing against “zero emission” alternatives such as electric cars that are powered utilizing a solar grid.”

Natural gas supply chain emits substantial greenhouse gases

Ecosystems: Does natural gas drilling/extraction/use jeopardize ecosystems?

Technology minimizes environmental "footprint" of natural gas

"Natural Gas - A Fossil Fuel". Energy Information Administration

“Exploring and drilling for natural gas will always have some impact on land and marine habitats. But new technologies have greatly reduced the number and size of areas disturbed by drilling, sometimes called “footprints.” Satellites, global positioning systems, remote sensing devices, and 3-D and 4-D seismic technologies, make it possible to discover natural gas reserves while drilling fewer wells. Plus, the use of horizontal and directional drilling make it possible for a single well to produce gas from much bigger areas than in the past.”

Natural gas drilling leaves a large environmental "footprint"

Any process of exploring for natural gas and drilling for it leaves a significant environmental “footprint”. This is in the infrastructure and utilities that must be laid down for natural gas as well as the act of drilling itself.

Waste from natural gas extraction jeopardizes water resources

Mr. Gennaro, chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee responding to the concept of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation by saying, “no” and “no.”…This is an activity that is completely and utterly inconsistent with a drinking water supply. This cannot happen. This would destroy the New York City watershed, and for what? For short-term gains on natural gas?”[2]

Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel.

Nonrenewable fossil fuels are inherently primitive and destructive to the environment. They involve extracting a fuel source from the ground instead of extracting it from renewable sources. This is unsustainable and should be avoided.

Economics: Is natural gas economically superior?

Natural gas is one of the cheapest ways to go "green"

National Ocean Industries Association: "About Natural Gas".

“how much does it costs to heat your home with natural gas? Compared to other energy sources, natural gas is a good buy. Heating with natural gas is cheaper than any other major heating source. It is nearly four times cheaper than electricity when you use resistance heat and is 25 percent less expensive than electric heat pumps.”

Natural gas is abundant and readily available

American Gas Association: “This winter’s supply of natural gas is abundant. Are we challenged for this winter? Not from the standpoint of reliably supplying customer demand.”[3]

Abundant natural gas helps lower energy prices

Chris McGill, managing director of policy analysis for the American Gas Association, said in 2007, “Abundant natural gas resources help to keep energy costs affordable for U.S. consumers–as long as producers are allowed access to those resources”.[4]

Natural gas is difficult to transport and store.

The major difficulty in the use of natural gas is transportation and storage. This is due to its low density. It is generally less efficient and more expensive to transport and store sources of energy that have a low level of latent energy per cubic meter. There is less return on each dollar spent in transporting and storing natural gas. Many existing pipelines in North America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians representing colder areas to speak publicly of potential shortages.

LNG and CNG are expensive methods of transporting/storing natural gas.

Pipelines cannot be built effectively across oceans. For this reason, it is necessary to transport natural gas by ship. For the above reasons, it is uneconomical to keep gas in its natural state, so the only viable alternatives are to liquify (LNG) or compress (CNG) the gas. This allows more of it to be transported in each voyage. Yet, liquefying and compressing natural gas for transportation, and then de-liquifying or de-compressing it for use, is an inefficient approach. It requires extra technology, process, management, and time that is not required in other alternative sources of energy.

Safety: Is natural gas safe?

Natural gas is less flammable and explosive than other fuels

Natural gas is a safer fuel than gasoline and diesel fuels. This is related to the fact that it has a limited range of flammability; it requires the correct mixture of air and fuel to burn—somewhere in the 5 to 15 percent range, and an ignition temperature of approximately 1100 degrees F. This compares favorably to gasoline and diesel fuels which both have lower concentrations of flammability and lower temperatures of ignition.[5]

Natural gas leaks tend to dissipate, reducing risks

Natural gas is lighter than air, so if there is a leak it will tend to dissipate. Propane is much more risky because it is heavier than air, so pools into explosive pockets.

Natural gas has a strong record of safety

Natural gas already has a long history of extraction, transport, and use in homes and utilities. In that history, there are very few instances of safety issues, leaks, fires, or explosions. The safety record of the industry is very solid, and should be expected to remain so into the future.

Natural gas safety regulations are very strong

Natural gas is already heavily regulated in terms of safety. These regulations have worked very well to virtually eliminate all major risks associated with the fuel. Any problems in regards to the safety of natural gas, however, can and should be addressed through further regulation.

Natural gas mines have sensors and equipment to improve safety.

In mines, where methane seeping from rock formations has no odor, sensors are used, and mining apparatuses have been specifically developed to avoid ignition sources.

Natural gas leaks are a fire and explosion risk

"Cleveland: Natural Gas Boom Has Hidden Danger". 2 May 2008

“Our affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio is reporting on the hidden dangers of natural gas wells being drilled in residential neighborhoods…NewsChannel5 Chief Investigator Duane Pohlman interviews an elderly couple who lost their home after a massive natural gas explosion, which was traced to a new well located just down the road from their home.”

Odorless natural gas can escape detection risking fire/explosion.

Odorless natural gas can escape detection by smell, which means that a house, factory, pipes or other natural gas utilities can release and be filled with natural gas. A spark or flame can, subsequently, cause a major fire or explosion.

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