Wednesday, May 25, 2016 ENERGY 101NATURAL GAS
Natural gas is a widely used but non-renewable source of energy (in other words: once it’s gone, it’s gone!). The gas in question is mainly methane, and – you’ve guessed it! – it occurs naturally. The remains of plants and animals build up over time as layers of decaying organic matter, deep below the earth’s surface, and are transformed into coal, oil and gas under extreme heat and pressure. Natural gas is often found in the cracks between layers of rock, or even within the pores of sedimentary rocks.
We extract this energy source by drilling deep wells – either on land or under the ocean floor – and releasing the gas to flow up to the surface. Methane and other useful gases are separated out from the waste products, and this usable fuel is then transported through underground pipelines to be stored or distributed to consumers. So that’s all well and good, but why do we want it?
Natural gas has proven itself to be a valuable and versatile resource. It lends a vital hand to the production of everyday materials such as steel, glass, paper and clothing, and to the generation of electricity. For many homes and businesses around the world, it is the primary fuel used for heating, cooking and outdoor lighting.
When not employed as the go-to energy source for consumers and industry alike, natural gas can be used as a raw material for products such as paints, dyes, antifreeze and fertilizer.
Global consumption of natural gas doubled between 1980 and 2010, with the Middle East seeing the most astronomical growth rate.
According to the most recent statistics from the US Energy Information Administration, North America accounts for the highest levels of natural gas usage, at 32,103 billion cubic feet in 2013. Russia alone consumed an impressive 15,599 billion cubic feet in the same year. By contrast, natural gas usage for the entire continent of Africa in 2013 reached only 4573 billion cubic feet.
Compared to the burning of coal or oil, natural gas is a relatively clean source of energy, releasing a lower density of air pollutants, including carbon dioxide. Having said that, methane is itself a strong greenhouse gas, so any leaks are harmful to the environment.
“Fracking” (which sounds rude, but is in fact the common term for a process called hydraulic fracturing) is a particularly controversial extraction technique that involves pumping liquids into the ground, under high pressure, to fracture the rock and release natural gas. Aside from the potential danger of chemicals being released from the fracturing fluid itself or dissolved in the large amounts of wastewater, a key concern is the risk of causing instability and even earthquakes in the underlying rock. Fracking has been banned in France and Tunisia, as well as in some US states. In the UK, strict licenses and permissions apply.
A final fun fact to share at dinner parties: because natural gas is odorless, a potent substance is added before it reaches consumers, purely so that we can tell if there is a leak in our homes. The gas company’s gift to you and me – a gentle infusion of rotten eggs!