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Natural Gas

Natural Gas is a flammable gas, consisting mainly of methane (CH4), occurring in underground reservoirs often with oil.

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What is Natural Gas?

Natural gas is primarily methane (CH4) with smaller quantities of other hydrocarbons1. It was formed millions of years ago when dead marine organisms sunk to the bottom of the ocean and were buried under deposits of sedimentary rock. Subject to intense heat and pressure, these organisms underwent a transformation in which they were converted to a gas over millions of years2.

Natural gas is found in underground rocks called reservoirs.  The rocks have tiny spaces in them (called pores) that allow them to hold water, natural gas and/or oil.  The natural gas is trapped underground by impermeable rock (called caprock), and stays there until it is extracted.

Conventional natural gas can be extracted through drilling wells. Unconventional forms of natural gas like shale gas, tight gas, sour gas, coalbed methane and gas hydrates have specific extraction techniques. Natural gas can also be found in reservoirs with oil and is extracted alongside oil; this is called associated gas. In the past, this gas was commonly flared or burned as a waste product but in most places today is captured and used3.

There are two general types of natural gas, defined by their methane content, that reflect differences in the formation processes:

  • Biogenic gas (± 95% methane), or “dry” gas, which was formed by bacterial decay at shallow depth.
  • Thermogenic gas (<95% methane), or “wet” gas, which is a lower quality gas formed at high temperatures. Wet gas on the other hand contains compounds such as ethane and butane, in addition to methane. These natural gas liquids (NGLs for short) can be separated and sold individually for various uses, such as refrigerants and to produce petrochemical products, like plastics. (House of Commons, 2011).

Natural gas is sent through small pipelines called gathering lines[4] to processing plants, which separate the various hydrocarbons and fluids from the pure natural gas, to produce what is known as ‘pipeline quality’ dry natural gas before it can be transported. Processing involves four main processes to remove the various impurities:

  • Oil and Condensate Removal
  • Water Removal
  • Separation of Natural Gas Liquids
  • Sulfur and Carbon Dioxide Removal

Gas is then transported through pipelines called feeders4 to distribution centers or stored. In some cases, gas is further liquefied for shipping in large tankers across oceans, this is called Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

Natural gas is mostly used for domestic or industrial heating and to generate electricity. 5 It can also be compressed and used to fuel vehicles (Compressed Natural Gas or CNG), and as a feedstock for fertilizers, hydrogen fuel cells and other chemical processes.

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Context

Natural gas development (especially in the United States) has increased as a result of technological advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.1 When natural gas is burned, there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants when compared to other fossil fuels. In fact, when used to produce electricity, natural gas emits approximately half the carbon emissions of coal. 6

Despite fewer emissions, natural gas is still a source of greenhouse gases and like all fossil fuels, is a nonrenewable resource. In addition, methane is a potent greenhouse gas itself, having nearly thirty four times the impact of CO2.  During drilling, natural gas can escape into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Natural gas leaks are also dangerous to nearby communities because it is colorless, odorless, highly toxic and highly explosive. The drilling process itself can also have environmental impacts mostly related to land disturbance and waste removal7.

Dive deeper

Recent blog posts about Natural Gas

External resources

INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION

International Gas Union

INTERNATIONAL OR PROMINENT INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION

International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers

International Association for Natural Gas (CEDIGAZ)

Natural Gas Supply Association

World LPG Association

International Association of Oil and Gas Producers

Canadian Gas Association

American Gas Association

America’s Natural Gas Alliance

Interstate Natural Gas Association of America

Australian Gas Association

Natural & bio gas Vehicle Association

Eurogas

Marcogaz

Gas Infrastructure Europe

The Africa Gas Association

The South African Pipeline Gas Association

Asia Pacific Natural Gas Vehicles Association

RESEARCH INSTITUTION

Unconventional Natural Gas and Oil Institute (UNGI)

Sustainable Gas Institute

Canadian Energy Research Institute

The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies – Natural Gas Programme

Gas Technology Institute

Penn State University – Institute for Natural Gas Research

European Gas Research Group

ACADEMIC JOURNAL

Journal of Natural Gas Science and Engineering

Journal of Natural Gas Chemistry

Oil and Gas Journal

HISTORY

National Energy Technology Labs, URS & Wilkes University

US Department of Energy

POLITICS
Baker Institute – Geopolitics of Natural Gas
Forbes – On Natural Gas Fracking Proposals
ECONOMICS
Pen State University – Economic Issues 
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia – Economic Implications of Natural Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale Region
Resources for the Future – The Economics of Shale Gas Development
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

US EPA

Union of Concerned Scientists Science for a healthy planet and safer world

ENBRIDGE

David Suzuki Foundation

National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT)

BUSINESS ANALYSIS

PLATTS McGraw Hill Financial 

Interfax Global Energy

HEALTH IMPACT

Werner, Vink, Watt, & Jagals

US EPA

Physicians for Social Responsibility

National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT)

University of Maryland

SUSTAINABILITY

Worldwatch Institute

Environmental Leader

Wintershall

OTHER INTERESTING ESSAYS/ARTICLES/LINKS
Aspen Institute – Forum on Global Energy, Economy, and Security
DEFINITION

Britannica

  1. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (2012). Upstream dialogue: The facts on natural gas. 
  2. United States Energy Information Administration (2015). Natural gas explained. http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=natural_gas_home
  3. Spectra Energy (2015). “Natural gas 101. http://www.spectraenergy.com/Natural-Gas-101/ 
  4. Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (n.d.) Types of pipelines. http://www.cepa.com/about-pipelines/types-of-pipelines
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2015). Natural gas. http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/natural-gas.html
  6. Origin (2015). Natural gas. http://www.originenergy.com.au/blog/about-energy/natural-gas.html
  7. Natural Resources Defense Council (2015). Unchecked fracking. http://www.nrdc.org/energy/gasdrilling/
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