Natural Gas: The Basics

Natural gas is an increasingly important supplier of our daily energy needs. These bubbles of odorless gas begin as organic material covered by a rocky combination of silt and sand. The pressure and heat supplied by the natural environment over thousands of years eventually becomes hydrocarbons, making up the nonrenewable energy source: natural gas. It is mainly composed of methane, although it does contain other higher alkanes, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and a small (relatively) amount of carbon dioxide. In order to access the gas, we must drill wells deep beneath the built up layers of the ground. While some believe this drilling is bad for the environment, others regard it as necessary to keep America running on energy. Thus, there is much debate and conflicting ideas about the role of natural gas today.

Current Role of Natural Gas

Natural gas provides the energy necessary to carry out most American’s daily routines. It has a variety of benefits that explain its popularity, the most important of which may be its relatively low number of pollutant and carbon dioxide emissions (in comparison to coal and petroleum.) In fact, 25% of America’s total energy consumption was supplied by natural gas in 2012. It is used in the production of various common raw materials that are used to make everything from clothes and the dyes that color them to medicines. Most of our homes are made of materials using natural gas, including glass, brick, steel, and paints. In the United States, we use natural gas to power our appliances and heat over half of our homes. Thus, the electric power sector accounts for the majority of natural gas consumption, as seen in the pie chart below. 

chart of natural gas use in 2012

Impact on the Environment

In regard to carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas is exceedingly better than coal and oil. Releasing 25% less CO2 than oil, 30% less than hard coal, and 35% less than brown coal. Unfortunately, although it is comparatively the best option out of the current available sources of energy, natural gas still has its fair share of environmental complications. In fact, natural gas leaks throughout the U.S. resulted in 25% of total U.S. methane emissions and 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. Other concerns include ground and surface water contamination from chemical spills, mishandling the wastewater from the shale and fracking processes, as well as poor construction of wells. The process of extracting natural gas also emits pollutants that can be damaging to our health. These carcinogens and toxins can lead to respiratory issues such as asthma and lung damage, as well as cancer to those who live around natural gas manufacturers.  As far as global warming is concerned, 1-9% of all natural gas produced escapes into the atmosphere. This is comparable to the methane emissions of 26-231 coal power plants. Thus, the short-term benefits of using natural gas as opposed to coal do not necessarily outweigh the long-term consequences.

Chart of the hidden risks to climate of natural gas

Role of Natural Gas in the Future

Solar, wind, and water energy are not necessarily reliable enough to supply the country as its only source of energy. Thus, as the United States moves toward trying to incorporate more renewable energy sources into our daily lives, we must find a way to supplement them in order to keep up with current energy consumption. Many speculate that natural gas will be chosen to fulfill this role due to its relatively low CO2 emissions in comparison to other energy sources. Globally, natural gas is forecasted to increase steadily by 2% each year until 2030, compared to oil at .08% and coal at 1.2%. While crude oil reserves are projected by some experts to last for only 40 more years at current consumption rates, some believe that natural gas reserves (with the fracturing of shale oil) will last for around 230 years. The following chart shows the world’s largest natural gas producers as of 2011, with the United States leading the group having produced 651 billion cubic meters.

Chart of biggest natural gas producers in 2011



Alex Griego

Last Updated: August 09, 2016