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Natural Gas: Pros and Cons

RP Siegel | Tuesday April 3rd, 2012 | 17 Comments

There is no perfect energy source. Each and every one has its own advantages and compromises. This series will explore the pros and cons of various energy sources.  Learn about other forms of energy generation here.

Natural gas has been in the news a lot lately, being hailed as the solution to our energy problems on the one hand, and a potential environmental nightmare on the other. Let’s try to sort out the reality behind this old friend with a new face. Before we start, it might be useful to make a distinction between the natural gas that has historically been collected as a byproduct of oil drilling and the more recently promoted source known as shale gas. This has become newsworthy as the result of an enormous deposit of shale gas discovered in the Marcellus field extending across large sections of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.  Shale gas requires a much more aggressive method of collection since it is buried deep in the earth under many layers of shale. The most popular method of collecting shale gas is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a relatively new technology, developed by Halliburton, which has become quite controversial. The move into fracking parallels a gradual takeover of the natural gas industry by the big oil companies.

PROS

  • Widely used, contributes 21% of the world’s energy production today
  • Delivery infrastructure already exists
  • End use appliances already widespread
  • Used extensively for power generation as well as heat
  • Cleanest of all the fossil fuels
  • Burns quite efficiently
  • Emits 45% less CO2 than coal
  • Emits 30% less CO2 than oil
  • Abundant supply in the US. DOE estimates 1.8 trillion barrels
  • Low levels of criteria pollutants, (e.g. SOx, NOx) or soot when burned
  • Can be used as an automotive fuel
  • Burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel
  • No waste (e.g. ash ) or residue to deal with
  • Lighter than air, safer than propane which is heavier than air
  • Can be used to makes plastics, chemicals, fertilizers and hydrogen
  • Natural gas industry employs 1.2 million people

CONS

  • Non-renewable fuel, supply cannot be replaced for millennia
  • Emits carbon dioxide when burned
  • Contains 80-95% methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG)
  • Explosive, potentially dangerous
  • Concentrated sources require long distance transmission and transportation
  • Energy penalties at every stage of production and distribution
  • Requires extensive pipelines to transport over land
  • Stored and distributed under high pressure
  • Requires turbine-generators to produce electricity
  • Liquefied form (LNG) used to transport over water, in tanker ships  is potentially very dangerous
  • Energy use competes with use for chemicals and fertilizers
  • Additionally, there are significant environmental risks associated with “fracking”
    • Water pollution due to runoff of fracking chemicals
    • Companies are not required to disclose the composition of fracking chemicals (another example of lobbying in action).
    • Water can also bring up adsorbed underground toxins including arsenic
    • GHG footprint of shale gas greater than coal over 100 year time frame
    • Fracking has been linked to earthquakes
    • Casing leaks lead to gas in the water—blazing faucets
    • Fracking requires a large amount of water

The relatively even number of pros and cons shows that this is not an easy choice. Given how widespread and available and “less bad” natural gas is from other fossil fuels, plus the number of jobs created, it is hard to ignore the argument that natural gas should serve as a bridge fuel as more sustainable alternatives are built out. We should keep in mind though, that it is a short term measure and invest accordingly. As far as fracking is concerned, considering that there is already lots of gas available right now, there is no reason (other than greed) to be in a hurry to develop shale gas. Instead, we should take whatever time is necessary to develop a safer, more responsible way to access that gas, while investing heavily in more sustainable sources that will ultimately obviate the need for it.

***

What about other energy sources?

[Image credit: Suncor energy: Flickr Creative Commons]

 

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      17 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • TedKidd

    Some other con’s:

    - The cheaper non-renewables are, the lower incentive/harder it is to justify investment in renewables. 

    - The cheaper non-renewables are, the lower incentive/harder it is to justify investment in improving efficiency. 

    - The cheaper non-renewables are, the lower incentive/harder it is to justify investment in conservation. 

    - The cheaper non-renewables are, the longer it will take for us to move away from dependence upon them. 

    I view this as analogous to a greasy $1.00 hamburger.  We know it’s not good for us, but it’s so cheap and easy how can we resist?  

    FINALLY,  It baffles me that the environmental bar is set so absurdly low, at tremendous risk to people and the environment.  Exempt from clean air and water act seems really absurd.  

    One really great thing about capitalist enterprises, they will compete on whatever playing field you create, delivering a level of quality called for in the specifications.  This competitive environment also means you won’t get quality an inch above that specified. 

    At the very least have the industry compete on a field that requires high environmental safeguards.  With the cost of Natural Gas at a 15 year low, don’t you think we could afford it?

    • Martin Kral

      I think TedKidd is on target when he says we need cheaper energy, more efficient energy, and energy independence all with the least impact on the environment. There is only one energy source that I know can do that; thorium energy. With LFTR technology, the entire infrastructure of power availability from mining to disposal would be completely changed and in most cases, completely out of sight. No coal power plant smoke stacks, no massive cooling towers, no drilling/pumper apparatuses, no sprawling solar farms, and no towering wind turbines dotting the landscape along with all those other towering high power grid structures. Small modular LFTR plants can be buried in local communities with localized grid distribution above or below ground for base load power 24/7.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.temple.5220665 John Temple

      I could suggest you invest in a business that is not economic. The same reason others aren’t jumping in both feet; wind nor solar is sufficient to run our economy. No one is out to kill Mother Nature, but, I will say if you think you can change her mind, think again because she does as she likes anyway.

  • tjmcb

    Gasfrac, a Canadian company has developed a process to frac using propane instead of water.  No biocides or deisel fuel is added to the propane– only a gelling agent and a breaker that assists in returning the propane gel to a gas after the pumping proceedure is complete.  Nearly all the “frac fluid” is recovered to be reused or sent along with the hydrocarbons produced in the well.  Truck traffic is a fraction of that compared to water since the volume of material used is so much smaller.  No waste water to treat or dispose in injection wells.  Has been used over 1000 sites in Canada and US and is proposed for use in Tioga county New York.  LPG fraccing can also yeild more oil or gas production that water as water interferes with pumping operations.  No or very little flarring of initial production to clean up the well after fraccing.  It is more expensive that water in the short term.  An example of solutions that can be employed.

    • RP Siegel

      @tjmcb: Good point. I noted this potentially promising approach in a previous article and forgot to mention it here. The use of propane gel sounds like it would be safer if the companies were willing to (or forced to) bear the extra cost. Of course, more environmental testing would be required to ensure its safety. 
      http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/11/fracking-firm-admits-caused-earthquakes/

  • MR.T

    I LOVE PUPPIES XD

    • bob

      mr.t you are a retard

      • steeve

        be nice bob

        • MR.T

          what about you just stop messing with things bob

        • STEVE

          YEAH PEOPLE BE NICE!!!!!!!

        • adrian r

          how is this even relevant to the topic

  • Golferman

    I am doing a project and this site is the first thing i see. It has reliable information to go on so I thank you very much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.temple.5220665 John Temple

    Fracking is not a new technology as it has been used to complete wells over 30 years now. Regarding horizontal drilling, now, that is relatively new, but still over 10+ years now with improvements along the way.

  • Cody 1985

    Please remove any mis represented info about fracing. Chemical run off is 100% contained by truck ponds (a barrier used to contain any chemicals). Also the”blazing facets” and earthquakes have been completely debunked.

    • Educatedkid

      No one will take you or your bullsh*t seriously, especially if you can’t spell.

      • MyMelody

        Yeah, I agree with you there

  • envirolove

    i totally agree that fracking stinks