Natural gas developed as a cleaner fossil fuel alternative to oil and coal as the evidence of climate change began to mount. We use this resource as a bridging resource between the older energy products we use and the new world of renewables.
Extracting natural gas often means fracking activities are necessary. These employment opportunities are good for the local economies where access is available, and it makes a country become more energy independent when reservoirs are tapped successfully.
The first natural gas deposits were identified in the United States as early as 1626, and modern commercialization took place around 1785 when it was used to light streets and houses in Great Britain. Baltimore became the first U.S. city to light its streets with this method in 1816.
Natural gas is a vital component of the world’s energy supply today. It represents over 50% of the energy consumed by commercial residential customers, along with over 40% of industrial consumption. When evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of this resource, the clean, safe, and local attributes of this fuel often take center stage.
List of the Advantages of Natural Gas
1. There is plenty of natural gas available for consumption.
The United States has a vast energy resource to use when considering natural gas. There’s about a century’s worth of availability based on the current consumption rates, and that doesn’t take into account the possibility of new resources being discovered during that time. We’re producing over 79 billion cubic feet per day, with much more around the world, allowing this natural resource to surpass coal as one of the world’s most popular fuels.
Natural gas accounted for over 30% of electricity production in the United States in 2015. That puts it ahead of nuclear and hydroelectricity while being equal to coal.
2. Natural gas is one of our most affordable energy resources.
On the average trading day, the price of natural gas is about four times lower than it is for crude oil. It’s also cheaper than most renewable sources of energy, and only nuclear can beat it from a kilowatt-hour perspective. Since it often costs less to build facilities that use this fossil fuel to generate electricity and other forms of energy, the overall expense associated with this option is much less for the average household.
3. The presence of natural gas supports the renewable energy industry.
There are two ways natural gas can support the renewable energy industry. The first advantage is that this fuel serves as a bridge between the dirtier fossil fuels and the cleaner renewables. It provides a similar combustion profile to coal or oil while reducing the number of greenhouse gas emissions that escape to the atmosphere.
The second benefit here is that we can turn natural gas into hydrogen fuel that produces no emissions at all. The electricity generated from this resource can work with the energy from hydropower, wind, and solar so that we have a reliable system with backups for our consumption needs.
4. We can transport natural gas with our existing energy infrastructure resources.
Natural gas uses pipelines, tankers, trucks, and other standard energy transportation methods to go almost anywhere in the world. This advantage allows us to create a commodity from this resource, creating import and export opportunities that support local economies. The only extra step that producers must undertake is scrub the product from any lingering methane that exists to ensure that it can burn cleanly.
5. Natural gas production and processing create numerous jobs.
The natural gas industry supports over three million direct employment opportunities in the United States. Growth in this sector has exceeded 40% in some years since 2007, adding hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs to the economy. Low prices and changes in demand can directly impact this benefit sometimes, but employment levels have been consistent for more than ten years, contributing several billion dollars to the GDP each year.
According to information released by the International Gas Union, over $385 billion gets added to the economy each year because of this resource. It is one of the few industries that offer specific opportunities to entry-level workers and those who hold a doctorate.
6. Natural gas reduces the carbon footprint for the average person who uses it.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel by definition because its creation comes from the breakdown of organic materials. It burns much cleaner when consumed than other fuels that come from the same process, emitting about half of the CO2 that crude oil does when combusted. That means we can all move toward a cleaner future when compared to the traditional energy process that impacted the environment in the past.
Consumers who switch from crude oil to renewables like solar or wind will experience a bigger reduction of their carbon footprint than those going to natural gas. Some would argue that any improvement is a benefit worth considering.
7. Every country in the world today can access natural gas resources.
The methods needed to obtain natural gas are not proprietary technologies. Any government with sufficient resources to afford the labor, equipment, and fracturing elements of this process can access a natural gas reserve if one is available to them.
The extraction technologies are very similar to what is necessary to access crude oil reserves. Many natural gas deposits are near current fossil fuel access points, giving some countries access to two separate fossil fuel resources instead of just one. That means more money can make its way into the economy.
8. Natural gas resources require less labor to create something usable.
When we compare natural gas to coal, this resource requires less labor to obtain fuel resources. It is also less disruptive to the environment, provides another labor benefit since fewer restoration efforts are necessary after accessing a reserve.
Instead of going through a mining process as we do with the coal, removing entire hillsides to extract the energy resource in some situations, the ground stays comparatively intact during the extraction process. That means natural gas is a safer energy resource to obtain for local, national, and global consumption.
9. Agricultural industries receive support through the processing of natural gas.
We can create more than usable fuels when accessing natural gas resources today. The chemicals industry uses it to produce numerous items, such as fertilizer, plastics, antifreeze, and fabrics. Some of the drugs that we take today come from our processing efforts with this fossil fuel.
A wide range of chemically-based products like acetic acid, methanol, ammonia, and butane comes directly from natural gas. We even create propane from this fossil fuel. Although we don’t often think about how the items we consume get created, our world would be a very different place if we didn’t have any natural gas available.
10. We can find multiple energy resources at or near natural gas reserves.
When we extract natural gas to use it as a fuel or refine it for other items, then several additional products often become available for developers to sell. Helium is the most common commodity found during the fracking process, but everything from crude oil to coal could be present in some locations. Shale is another resource commonly found that can contribute to a country’s energy independence.
This combination of factors allows us to create thousands of different products that we use every day, ranging from soap to toothpaste. We can even say that our homes are cleaner because of the presence of these products.
11. Natural gas is usable in a variety of ways as a direct fuel.
We often use natural gas to power our appliances or to heat our homes. It is also usable as an automotive fuel, and it burns cleaner than diesel or refined gasoline for that purpose. There aren’t particulates like ash or soot that can float into the atmosphere, allowing us to take advantage of its efficient burning processes. That’s why it contributes over one-fifth of the world’s energy production today.
List of the Disadvantages of Natural Gas
1. Natural gas doesn’t remove all of the emissions from our environment upon consumption.
The primary issue that critics have with natural gas is the presence of methane that comes with it. Whether producers burn it off or scrub it away in some other method, there is still a strong chance that leaks could escape to the atmosphere.
Methane is a more powerful reflectant for solar energy than carbon dioxide, and it can stay in the atmosphere for up to 25 times longer than CO2. Its potency might be 80 times higher when evaluating its presence over a 20-year timeframe. Since over half of this gas that is in our atmosphere comes from manmade activities, our production work for natural gas is a significant contributor to this issue.
2. It presents a high risk of loss during transportation activities.
The United States has more than 300,000 miles of pipeline that supports natural gas and the fossil fuel industry. Tens of thousands of additional miles exist around the world. Although leaks are not a daily event, the amount of methane that enters the atmosphere can be significant if the fuel wasn’t scrubbed before being packaged and sent. One leak in 2015 that happened in California added over 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere, and some estimates suggest that the figure could be closer to 200,000 tons.
Although we have several methods available for natural gas transportation, the risk of a leak means we lose that energy when it occurs. Not only do we damage our environment with this disadvantage, but it also creates a financial cost we must manage.
3. Fracking for natural gas leads to earthquakes in some regions.
Over 30 states in the U.S. have shale formations that could hold natural gas reserves. The fracking process requires workers to drill thousands of feet into the ground to crack the strata that keep this fuel in place. That work is known to create earthquakes in the regions where significant industrial resources are dedicated to the retrieval of natural gas.
Oklahoma has seen numerous hydraulic fracking earthquakes since 2010 because of the natural gas industry. Even the U.S. Geological survey admits that up to 2% of the incidents in the state are directly attributed to the fracking process. That means more earthquakes happen in this interior state than they do in California.
4. Natural gas is a fuel that might not be available in the future.
Even when we look at the current estimates for natural gas availability, most of what we know that is available now will be gone by the year 2100. It gets created by the natural decay and compression of organic material that could take several million years to make. That means once it is all gone, we must shift to a different fuel to meet our needs. Considering the time that it took humanity to build the infrastructure for our current fossil fuels, the time to start the transition to renewables might be right now.
Proponents of natural gas would point to the bridging nature of this fuel to say that’s exactly what is happening. Critics would say that one fossil fuel is the same as another. The reality of this disadvantage is that we’re going to need to make a decision at some point.
5. The infrastructure we use to process natural gas is getting older.
Most of the pipelines and transportation assets that we use to get natural gas to refineries are more than 20 years old. Some of the infrastructure is over 50 years. That means leaks can occur at any time, and it may be months or years before a small issue can get detected and fixed. Even pressure changes to the pipelines that bring the refined product to homes and businesses can create dangerous situations.
After several gas explosions happened in September 2018, the company responsible for distribution settled the cases for $80 million. The blasts forced thousands of people to leave their homes, although thankfully no one was killed during the incident. Several injuries and personal losses were part of the settlement process.
6. Natural gas has a lower energy density than other refined fuels.
When we compare natural gas to refined gasoline or modern diesel fuel, it has a less economical overall energy density rate. That means we must use more of it to achieve the same results that are possible with comparable fuels.
Although the consumption of natural gas creates less carbon dioxide in its production, that savings gets offset by the fact that the average person must use more of it to support their lifestyle. There is a net long-term benefit to contemplate, which is why natural gas is beneficial, but even that requires significant consumption levels to generate.
7. We must transport natural gas in significant quantities for it to be economically viable.
Natural gas resources get transported in considerable quantities because it needs a specific amount of pressurization to get safely transported from one location to another. Small amounts of natural gas are not easy to carry because of this fact, limiting the overall usefulness that this fossil fuel can offer.
We are unable to use natural gas like we can benefit from other low-pressure fuels, such as refined gasoline, because of this disadvantage.
8. Natural gas is not always available in the places that could use it.
The developing world would stand to gain the most benefits from the use of natural gas since these areas tend to use coal, wood, and other combustibles that contribute particulates to the atmosphere. Switching to this resource would cut greenhouse gas emissions and the overall pollution levels in that country.
Natural gas does not occur in vast quantities naturally underground in every country. Some governments must import natural gas if they want to use this energy resource, creating financial obligations and dependencies that can lead to debt. Our structure of commerce prevents the world from wholly benefiting from this resource, which means the emissions in our atmosphere are higher because of our desire to focus on borders and economics than human wellbeing.
9. The products made from natural gas can cause environmental damage.
It isn’t just the natural gas emissions that can create environmental damage when we use this resource. The products that we refine from natural gas can also have a devastating effect on local biomes. Excessive fertilizer can create an excess of soluble salts that stay behind in the soil, altering its profile so that the pH levels become too acidic or alkaline. Injuries to plants are possible through iron chlorosis, excessive salt content, and other problems that further enhance the problems with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
10. Water runoff pollution is possible in multiple ways with natural gas.
Significant pollution risks exist for the natural gas industry because of the fracking and refinement processes needed to use this fuel. The chemicals used to obtain this resource can leech into water supplies, even if the majority of them are the same ones that households use for cleaning purposes. Companies aren’t always required to disclose the composition of what they use, so the water can absorb more natural toxins, such as arsenic, without consumers realizing it.
Extreme incidents that involve this disadvantage has led to water that can catch on fire even though it goes to a household faucet.
When we look at the advantages and disadvantages of natural gas, it is essential to remember that many of the critical points in this guide are seen as positive or negative based on individual perspectives. Is this energy resource cleaner than coal? Yes. Is it better for the planet than an infrastructure based on solar, wind, and geothermal energy? Maybe not.
Because natural gas is a fossil fuel, we must be mindful of our consumption efforts. Our society can make it to the year 2100 using current reserves, but that also means we must maintain the current consumption levels. With another 2 billion people on our planet coming between now and that target date, we must reduce our per capita usage starting today.
We can carefully manage natural gas as a bridge to a safer, cleaner future. It can also encourage us to stay on fossil fuels. The eventual outcome we experience will be based on the decisions we make right now.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.