Is Natural Gas a Fossil Fuel?
The shift to a clean energy economy is on – and accelerating by the day.
Year after year, the cost of wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies continues to fall. In more and more regions of the US and around the world, energy from renewables is as cheap or cheaper than dirty fossil fuel energy.
Which brings us straight to an increasingly popular fuel that many are putting a lot of faith in: natural gas. A fuel often praised for its affordability. A fuel some go so far as to call clean – or at the very least, cleaner.
A fuel that inspires a lot of wishful thinking.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Coal, crude oil, and natural gas are all considered fossil fuels because they were formed from the buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.”
So, to answer the headline question – yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel.
But now, let’s dig just a bit deeper so we’re all on the same page about exactly what that means as well as the reality of what we’re dealing with when it comes to natural gas, its extraction, processing, and use.
WHERE NATURAL GAS COMES FROM
Natural gas, like all fossil fuels, is a non-renewable source of energy formed in the earth over approximately the past 550 million years, typically from the remains of marine microorganisms and plants.
Over time, these organic remains decompose and become buried under more and more dirt, rock, and other decaying materials. This process seals off oxygen and puts this organic matter under ever-increasing amounts of heat and pressure, leading to a thermal breakdown process that ultimately converts it to hydrocarbons.
The lightest of these hydrocarbons occur in a gaseous state known collectively as “natural gas,” which in its pure form is a colorless, odorless gas composed primarily of methane.
Natural gas is found in underground rocks called reservoirs. These rocks have tiny spaces, called pores, which allow them to hold the natural gas, as well as water and sometimes oil. An impermeable rock – appropriately called a “cap rock” – traps the natural gas underground, where it stays until it’s extracted.
Conventional natural gas can be extracted by drilling wells. However, there are also “unconventional” forms of natural gas – like shale gas, tight gas, and coal bed methane – and these have extraction techniques all their own.
One, in particular, we feel confident you’ve heard of – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Fracking is “the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. … The process can be carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer, which can create new pathways to release gas or used to extend existing channels.”
Fracking is used primarily to extract natural gas from shale, and its development has played a big role in the increased production of natural gas in recent years.
In the US, Texas and Pennsylvania tower over all other states in terms of natural gas production. The Lone Star state produced around 23 percent of US natural gas in 2017, while the Keystone State produced about 20 percent. Oklahoma and Louisiana follow with 8 percent each.
HOW DOES IT GET FROM THE GROUND TO MY LIGHT SWITCH?
Natural gas is largely used for domestic or industrial heating and to generate electricity. It’s also used in industrial chemical processes that we will get into pretty directly. And the journey it takes from rocks underground to your home, office, or school is rife with potential problems.
Once extracted, natural gas is typically sent through small pipelines to plants for processing. There, the various hydrocarbons and fluids are separated from the pure natural gas to produce what is known as “pipeline quality dry natural gas.”
This higher-quality, processed gas is then transported through feeder pipelines to distribution centers for use – or it’s sometimes stored in underground reservoirs to be used later.
At many stages of this process, the methane – which is a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas (see below) – can leak through faulty pipes and other infrastructure into the atmosphere. These leaks can be substantial, and significantly accelerate global warming.
Proponents like to shout about natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon economy, but these leaks and all the extra heat they help trap likely eliminate any of the alleged benefits.
But that’s not quite the full picture, either. Because there are actually two types of natural gas – dry and wet – and the story of the latter has as much to do with refrigerants ,and plastic production as it does the electrical outlets in your home.
Dry natural gas is mostly methane, while wet gas also contains compounds like ethane and butane. These natural gas liquids (NGLs) are separated from the pipeline quality gas described above. Then, they’re utilized at sites like ethane cracker plants to manufacture products like plastics.
The bad news is that cracker plants and other parts of gas infrastructure produce all kinds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, which can cause cancer in humans. And these chemicals have a way of getting into the air and water that workers and local communities breathe and drink every day. The result is often a ticking time bomb for public health.
IS NATURAL GAS A CLEAN FORM OF ENERGY?
See, that was easy.
When people make this argument, they’re (mostly) referring to one thing in particular that is indeed true of natural gas: a new, efficient natural gas power plant emits around 50 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) during combustion when compared with a typical coal-based power plant, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
To be sure, we should take seriously any source of energy that reduces our dependence on coal and oil, the primary sources of the carbon emissions that drive climate change. But let’s also engage in some real talk: 50 percent less CO2 isn’t zero CO2, and reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the second half of this century is essential to the long-term health of our planet and ourselves.
Plus, CO2 isn’t the only harmful GHG emission generated by natural gas development. Which brings us back to methane.
Methane is a very, very powerful greenhouse gas. In the atmosphere, compared to carbon, it’s fairly short-lived: only about 20 percent of the methane emitted today will still be in the atmosphere after 20 years. However, when it first enters the atmosphere, it’s around 120 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat and 86 times stronger over a 20-year period.
“While methane doesn't linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Bottom line: We’re still talking about a fossil fuel here, one that still contributes to climate change when burned.
PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE IS PERSONAL POWER
So what do we do? We fight back.
Fossil fuels (all of them!) are the energy of the past. With new technologies like wind, solar, and advanced batteries in our hands, we can power today and tomorrow with clean, reliable energy that doesn’t harm our health or destroy our planet.
We know our fight can seem daunting, which is why working together to take action is so important. To get where we need to go, we need everyone.
The County Climate Coalition is a nationwide community of counties that have signed on to uphold the Paris Agreement. Once your county signs up, you become part of a national network – offering real opportunities for progress on climate at a time when it matters most.
Whether you’re in California or Maryland or any state in between, within the County Climate Coalition, you'll have allies who share your goals and want to work together to protect our future.
This is your opportunity to take a stand.
LEARN MORE SO YOU CAN FIGHT BACK
But to take a stand, you must be ready with the facts.
Download our free new fact sheet, Climate 101: Natural Gas, to get more detail on natural gas, fracking, the dangers of methane emissions, and why it’s so important that we act together to fight its expansion.
In it, we offer up the facts – and just the facts.
If natural gas expansion comes at the expense of renewables, the greenhouse gas emissions threat to our climate continues. That’s why it’s so vital to learn more about why natural gas is a bridge to nowhere now.