To answer the question, is natural gas environmentally friendly, we go back to April 22nd, 2016 United Nations leaders signed the Paris agreement. The agreement represented a long-term international commitment. In fact, 196 leaders committed to keeping the global temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. In addition, leaders agreed to pursue a reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gasses. The goal was to reach net-zero emissions by the year 2050.
However, It will be a challenge to achieve this aggressive goal. Participating countries need to reduce the production and consumption of fossil fuels. One popular strategy is to turn the world’s attention to natural gas as an alternate source of energy. However, many people oppose this idea. They claim natural gas is not as clean as the media portrays. So, again, this begs the question, is natural gas environmentally friendly?
The need for clean energy revolves around greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gasses absorb radiation from the sun reflected from the earth’s surface. Instead of allowing the radiation to escape the earth’s atmosphere, they capture the radiation. Global warming is the result.
Many media outlets focus on natural gas as the solution to the world’s energy problem. They present natural gas as a clean alternative to coal. And, according to CNBC, the transition to natural gas has begun. Coal-burning has decreased significantly in the past 5-years. Also, global demand for natural gas has increased by 1.4% in 2015.
The question remains, is it the solution we are looking for or yet another tactic of the multimillionaires in the big oil and gas industry working to deflect the need for real change? Let’s take a deep look into the issue.
Is Natural Gas Environmentally Friendly?
What is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a colorless and odorless source of energy found deep below the earth’s surface. The gas contains many components such as ethane, propane, water vapor, butane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide.
An article published by National Geographic says that natural gas dates back to the 1600s. French explorers traveling through early America discovered it. They noticed Native Americans igniting flames in mid-air and over the water near Lake Erie. After some investigation, they realized the area was emitting flammable gas vapors from underground.
Years later, in 1821, William Hart successfully dug into the earth’s surface to tap into this resource. Williams hole in Fredonia, New York became the first natural gas well in the united states. From that, Fredonia Gas & Light Company was born along with America’s gas industry.
The term “natural” simply means the substance exists naturally. Scientists in a laboratory can not create natural gas. It comes straight from nature. But, when you put the term “natural” in front of a product, it creates a phrase that makes it desirable.
Marketing industry experts have used this ploy for generations to make dangerous products seem less dangerous. For example, if a brand of rat poison claims to contain natural ingredients, it is immediately more desirable. The irony is using “natural” in the title of a product that kills rodents to make you feel better:
“Use Natural Rat Poison to kill your unwanted pests”
The same is true with packaged foods claiming to contain natural ingredients or “all-natural” hair products. The word “natural” carries connotations of something being pleasant and safe. That’s why it is so important for consumers to realize that the word “natural” in the title does not necessarily make a product safe for use.
How do people use Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel like oil and coal. Therefore, it has just as many uses in today’s world as all of the other fossil fuels. Companies burn natural gas as fuel to produce electricity. This electricity powers machines, powers homes. People also use natural gas to make chemicals and to make products such as stone, clay, and petroleum. Plus, natural gas is important in the process of waste treatment and at metal refineries.
Residential homes, industrial settings, and restaurants use natural gas for cooking. Many home appliances such as stoves, clothes dryers, and fireplaces use natural gas to produce heat. You may even have a BBQ pit in your backyard that runs on natural gas.
The transportation industry has recently found natural gas very useful. It turns out natural gas is an excellent fuel source for cars. Today, natural gas powers buses, transportation trucks, cars, and many other vehicles. Based on information from National Geographic there are already more than 150,000 of these natural gas vehicles (NGV) currently operating within the United States alone.
NGVs are more expensive to purchase than traditional gas-powered vehicles. However, their fuel is cheaper. In addition, burning traditional gas releases toxic fumes such as arsenic, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere. NGVs emit 70 percent less carbon monoxide.
So, if natural gas is less expensive and better for the environment, could it be the best investment for the future of America? To answer this question, we must first answer the question: Is Natural Gas Environmentally Friendly?
Is Natural Gas Environmentally Friendly?
Industry giants like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell proudly proclaim that natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal and oil. One oil industry leader told Reuters:
“While natural gas is not as clean as solar or wind energy, Natural gas is the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel because it burns cleaner…. Natural gas is better for the environment than other fossil fuels“Reuters
Is natural gas the fuel of the future? Again, the word “natural” in a title does not necessarily mean the product is safe. When oil giants claim that natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal and oil, they are partially correct. It’s true that burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide. National Geographic confirms that natural gas power plants emit 50-60 percent less carbon dioxide than traditional oil and coal plants. However, carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas we have to worry about.
With all fossil fuels, there is no such thing as a completely “clean” product. Using a fossil fuel for energy will always result in some sort of a byproduct.
Also, as one might expect, the byproduct is toxic and bad for the environment. Burning natural gas produces substantially less carbon dioxide. However, it contains a byproduct that’s far worse for the environment than carbon dioxide: Methane.
Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It is worse for the environment than carbon dioxide gas. In fact, according to SoCalGas.com, methane does the most harm to the atmosphere prior to burning. Methane is most dangerous to the environment in its raw form. One unit of methane causes as much global warming as 28 units of C02. Natural gas is anywhere from 70 percent to as high as 90 percent methane.
What are the Advantages of Natural Gas?
Early in his presidency, President Obama was a supporter of Natural gas. According to Forbes, the United States increases its natural gas usage from 21% to 33% between the years of 2008-2016. Obama told reporters in an interview,
“If extracted safely, (natural gas) is the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change”President Obama
The idea that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” is not a new idea. “Bridge fuel” means we use natural gas until we find a cleaner source of energy. And natural gas is the most popular alternative to coal. And who could blame them? This gas has several positive qualities. Here are some of the advantages of Natural Gas:
Natural Gas is less expensive.
Natural gas cost much less than other fossil fuels. The US Department of Energy reported that producing natural gas costs 68 percent less than other fossil fuels when producing electricity.
It’s the cleanest of all fossil fuels
Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel to burn. It leaves behind no toxic ash like other fossil fuels. When used as an automotive fuel, natural gas burns cleaner in cars than gasoline or diesel. This is because it burns up completely leaving behind no fuel deposits.
Natural Gas emits less Carbon Dioxide
Burning natural gas emits substantially less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal. An article by Triple Pundit.com says that natural gas emits 45% less carbon dioxide than coal. And it emits 30% less carbon dioxide than oil.
The US has an abundant supply
The US Department of Energy estimates that the United States has access to 1.8 trillion barrels of natural gas. Our abundance in natural gas can greatly reduce our dependence on foreign companies for energy.
What are the Disadvantages of Natural Gas?
Natural gas has its advantages. Alas, there are just as many disadvantages as there are advantages. Some would say the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. The disadvantages are the reason many people have decided natural gas is not environmentally friendly. Here are some of the disadvantages of natural gas:
Natural gas is a non-renewable energy source.
The amount of fossil fuel at our disposal is ultimately limited to what exists underground. The science simply doesn’t support the idea that there is an infinite supply of any fossil fuel. This means, just as with coal, we will one day run out of natural gas. Therefore, natural gas is only a distraction from the fact that we must find a renewable energy source.
Natural gas contains methane.
Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One unit of methane is as damaging to the environment as 28 unites of carbon dioxide. Natural gas is 90% methane.
Natural gas processing damages the environment.
Just as with oil, natural gas requires drilling which disturbs the natural habitats of many animals. The creation of natural gas wells usually requires the leveling of a large area surrounding the well. This displaces people and animals.
Natural gas is colorless and odorless. This is why a chemical is added to give it a unique smell so that gas leaks can be detected quickly. Unfortunately, natural gas is susceptible to gas leaks at every stage of development. First, gas escapes during the process of well drilling. Then, gas leaks into the atmosphere when it is piped through pipelines. Finally, gas leaks when they place it into storage tanks or distribute to vendors.
Leave Earth’s Reserve of Natural Gas in the Ground!
Due to the marketing ploy of using the word “natural”, gas and popularity have grown. And there is still this large political conversation about natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to lower our dependency on coal. This narrative makes natural gas seem like an attractive option to help with the transition to renewable energy sources.
Contrary to the media hype, natural gas is not environmentally friendly. Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, but a fossil fuel no less. Decayed organic matter under the ground cannot be the future of energy production. We need a true “clean energy” source and further development of any source which falls short of that standard is a waste of resources.
We also need to focus our resources on developing more efficient renewable energy sources that are already in existence. Existing sources of clean energy include wind, solar and renewable energy. In addition, we need to invest in the science of new clean energy resources.
As far as a “bridge fuel” is concerned, the government claims that natural gas is a short-term solution. Yet, they are making long-term investments in oil and gas. For instance, in 2019 the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $39 million investment into research and development of oil and gas technologies. This money is available for projects that will improve oil and natural gas processes. The $39 million is in addition to the federal funding already awarded every year for such projects. Spending at this level does not sound short-term to me.
How can we stop the use of Natural Gas?
The United States government and large portions of the media seem to believe that natural gas is the future. As a result, Natural gas has grown to nearly 21% of the energy produced globally. Until the rest of the world learns otherwise, we have an individual responsibility to lower our consumption of natural gas. Here are a few things that we all can do to use less natural gas.
- Make sure your heating system receives regular maintenance.
- Lower the level on your hot water heater.
- Try to use less hot water.
- Save gas by cooking using other methods.
For more ideas on how you can use less natural gas, go to Earthjustice.org/action. Natural gas is not the future, it is just another part of the past. The future of power production globally is clean energy. Moreover, our future is very bright as long as we continue to invest in renewable sources of energy. As for natural gas, perhaps one day it will no longer go by that misleading name. Instead, I suggest renaming natural gas for the effect it has on the environment. Call it: “Natural Sky Killer”.
Resources for this post.
- Triple Pundit: Natural Gas: Pros and Cons
- Natural Gas Explained
- National Geographic
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