Discover the truth about natural gas and its renewability. Get insights on its environmental impact and sustainability.
As we try to wean ourselves off the fossil fuels that fuelled the growth of our economies from the Industrial Revolution onwards, multiple new energy sources have started to become prevalent. Among those new energy sources is natural gas, but what is it, where does it come from, and is it a potential answer to the question of how we completely transition to a greener future?
Natural gas is a term which tells us next to nothing about what it is from its name alone. It is a fossil fuel, the same as coal and oil, produced from the remains of plants and tiny animals that lived in the prehistoric past. Over the millions of years since, these remains became buried under many layers of rock, silt, and sand, where the enormous pressure and heat exerted upon them slowly transformed them into energy-rich, high-carbon materials.
The main component in natural gas is methane, a chemical with one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH4). When methane is burned, it combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). Natural gas also contains small amounts of other gases, some flammable and some non-flammable. It is, in its raw state, tasteless and odourless.
The method of extracting natural gas depends on where it’s found:
Traditional gas wells extract gas found in large cracks between rock layers fairly close to the earth’s surface.
Offshore gas wells tap into deposits of gas under the ocean floor.
Hydraulic fracturing involves breaking up layers of rock with high-pressure jets of water, sand, and chemicals to release the gas trapped therein, which then flows out into wells near the surface.
Natural gas extracted from these wells goes to a processing plant, where the non-flammable gases are removed. It’s then compressed and sent through pipelines to storage facilities and distributed. It has three main uses; in the production of electricity, In the UK, as a heat source for buildings and industries, and for use in industry itself.
In recent years, there has been increased interest in renewable natural gas, which is produced from more sustainable sources such as landfill sites and food waste. This is still environmentally harmful, but as much as natural gas from fossil sources.
Generally speaking, for an energy source to be considered renewable, it must be naturally replenishable. Energy sources that we refer to as renewable come from sources such as wind, sunlight and water. These occur naturally, are relatively unlimited, and can be used indefinitely. As such, natural gas as defined here cannot be considered a renewable energy source. There is a finite amount of it on the planet, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Natural gas is the product formed from the remains of living beings from millions of years ago. There is a finite amount of it, and as such it cannot be considered a form of renewable energy. Renewable natural gas is increasingly popular but still causes environmental damage.
Natural gas has an environmental impact with both its extraction and consumption. Well drilling produces air pollution and may disturb people, wildlife, and water resources while laying the pipelines that transport natural gas from wells usually requires land clearance to bury the pipe. Natural gas production can also produce large volumes of contaminated water.
The news doesn’t get much better when we use it, either. Natural gas emits greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane into the air, as well as a host of other chemicals in trace quantities which further deteriorate air quality.
In response to this, industry has sought to find ways to make itself more sustainable, including the greater use of renewable energy in production, greater efficiency and a technology called carbon capture and storage, in which captured gases could then be injected underground to be stored permanently. But even carbon capture and storage is highly controversial, while none of this negates the effects of natural gas consumption.
Natural gas does have much to recommend it. It’s considerably less environmentally damaging than oil or coal because it produces less soot. There is an abundant supply of it, with huge natural reserves. It’s easy to store and transport, and because of this and the not unrelated fact that the infrastructure is already in place, it’s cheaper.
But the arguments against it are persuasive. Consumption produces vast amounts of greenhouse gases, mostly methane and carbon dioxide, and it’s not sustainable. Even if we have a vast amount of it, that amount is only going to reduce over time. Production results in environmental damage, and while it may be easy to store and transport, its volatility makes it difficult to use. And that very infrastructure comes at an environmental cost. Pipelines cost a fortune to maintain and spoil landscapes, while transportation produces even greater environmental harm.
Natural gas releases 45% less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal and 30% less than oil. and burns more cleanly, with no soot being emitted when it’s used.
While the environmental costs of natural gas and renewable gas are similar, renewable natural gas uses environmentally sustainable sources such as landfills and food waste.
Solar power, wind power and hydroelectricity are all renewable energies. We have a limitless supply of them, whereas natural gas is a finite resource. The biggest issue with solar, wind and water is that as storage solutions for the energy that they produce become more reliable, they are likely to become increasingly viable as a long-term replacement for even natural gas.
Natural gas has long been billed as a good stepping stone for a world looking to replace coal with renewable energy, but research indicates that methane emissions that occur during its extraction and transport mean natural gas isn’t as climate-friendly as once thought.
The Climate Change Act 2008 was passed in the UK in November 2008 with an overwhelming majority across political parties, setting out emission reduction targets that the UK must comply with legally. It represented the first global legally binding climate change mitigation target set by a country, committing the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. In addition, the Act requires the Government to assess the risks and opportunities of climate change for the UK and to adapt to them. This is carried out through UK-wide Climate Change Risk Assessments (CCRA), to be carried out every five years.
Produced in 2020, The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution stretched the 80% target for 2050 to Net Zero, as well as a promise to drive the growth of low carbon hydrogen using carbon capture and storage technologies and greater investment in green technologies.
The government’s ‘Build Back Greener’ strategy was first published in October 2021. According to the government, “this strategy sets out our plans for reducing emissions from each sector of our economy, while hoovering up any remaining emissions with greenhouse gas removals – either natural, like trees, or technological, using carbon capture.”
In Scotland, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 placed a duty on ministers to set out a programme for climate change adaptation following each CCRA. The Act also requires an annual report on progress and for the CCC to independently report on progress every two years. The CCC’s most recent evaluation of the first Scottish Climate Adaptation Programme was in 2019.
The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 provides a framework to manage natural resources, while the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 aims to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. Both Acts include parts which are important to climate change adaptation. The Welsh Government produced a draft Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Wales in 2018.
The role of natural gas in the world is likely to continue to expand under almost all circumstances, as a result of its availability, its utility, and its comparatively low cost. It remains relatively abundant, and for all the controversy surrounding it, carbon capture and storage will likely continue to be considered a viable option to keep those gas taps turned on. There remains a belief that natural gas can provide a bridge towards a greener energy future, despite current criticism of the environmental damage it causes.
In both the short and long term, we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, including natural gas. It’s the only way to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C. That’s the line most scientists agree we must not cross to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, though the hotter it gets, the more extreme weather we see. We’ll need to utilise the clean alternatives we have and develop innovative new ones to end the use of natural gas for heating and power generation.
In the short-term natural gas has played a useful role in reducing our carbon load compared to coal, but it remains important to ensure that any new generation capacity comes from renewable sources. While we are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, natural gas may be able to provide a less harmful way to generate power than coal or oil while the technology to fully realise the potential of renewable energy sources. We need to focus on finding ways to reduce its harm and ensure the natural gas industry is working towards capturing and offsetting the damage that its industry creates. In the meantime, natural gas looks like it’s here to stay for now, so maybe now is the time to consider whether your current supplier is the right one for you.
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