Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It produces heat-trapping carbon dioxide when combusted. Additional emissions are produced through gas leaks during extraction and pipeline distribution. Natural gas is a nonrenewable energy resource because it cannot be replenished on a human time frame. Natural gas is seen as a threat to efforts to combat climate change for a number of reasons, but major concern focuses on the methane emissions released during production and transport of usable gas. Additionally, proliferation of gas production slows the world’s transition to renewable energy sources, which must happen at an aggressive pace in order to avoid some of the most costly consequences of climate change. A recent World Resources Institute report suggests fugitive methane emissions from natural gas systems represent a significant source of global warming pollution in the US.
The natural gas power production process begins with the extraction of gas, continues with its treatment and transport to the power plants and ends with its combustion in boilers and turbines that generate electricity. At the power plant, the burning of natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas, can also be emitted into the air when natural gas is not burned completely. Similarly, methane can be emitted as the result of leaks and losses during transportation. Recent reports suggest methane emissions resulting from leaks in natural gas pipelines are comparable to coal emissions.
Methods of Extraction:
Natural gas production often requires extreme and untested extraction methods that are damaging to the environment and resource intensive. The most well known of these methods is hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is the process of injecting pressurized water, sand and poisonous chemicals into a rock formation, fracturing the rock formation and then accessing shale gas, tight gas, tight oil, and coal seam gas. This method has become increasingly common and its rapid deployment has raised concerns about the impact on freshwater resources, chemical contamination, increased carbon emissions, earthquakes and increased industrialization. See The Tree’s Hydraulic Fracking Topics Page.
Liquified Natural Gas Exports:
As natural gas production continues via fracking and other unconventional methods, the issue of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) has become increasingly prevalent. LNG is natural gas supercooled into a liquid form. This is done to more expedite transport of natural gas to and from destinations not linked by pipeline. Exporting natural gas would increase fracking and would increase carbon emissions, while putting sensitive ecological areas at risk. In the US, environmental and citizen groups continually fight LNG export terminals arguing that the natural
gas combustion required to produce and transport LNG to the plants adds 20 to 40 percent more carbon dioxide than burning of the natural gas alone. From a safety standpoint, LNG terminals have historically been an area for concern. In 2004, an explosion at Sonatrach LNG liquefaction facility in Algeria killed 27 and injured 56, destroying three LNG trains, costing the facility $900 million (USD). More recently, in April of 2014, an unexplained blast at an LNG facility in rural Washington state injured workers, forced an evacuation and raised alarm about a potentially large second explosion. This explosion along with a number of other concerns has cast doubt about many proposed LNG export facilities around the world.
Beyond concerns about explosions, methane emissions and contributions to climate change, natural gas production is seen as a direct threat to environments and ecosystems wherever it is produced and transported. The extraction of natural gas and the construction of natural gas power plants can destroy natural habitat for animals and plants. Possible land resource impacts include erosion, loss of soil productivity, and landslides.
Reports & Studies
- Impacts of gas in Canada: Shale Gas in British Columbia (Pembina)
- LNG and health: Beyond Natural Gas (Sierra Club)
- Emissions from LNG: The Climate Implications of US Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG, Exports (Center for American Progress)
- Emissions from natural gas: U.S. Methane Emissions Vastly Underestimated (EPA)
- Emissions from natural gas: Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gase Emissions from U.S. Upstream Natural Gas Systems (World Resources Institute).
- Hazards of quick gas production: “Dirty Dangerous and Run amok” (Sierra Club)
- Gas ceiling: Assessing the impacts of over reliance on natural gas for electricity (Union of Concerned Scientists)
- Impact on renewables: Natural gas and its role in the US energy endgame (e360 – Yale)
- Comparison to coal: Switching from Coal to Natural Gas would do Little for Global Climate (NCAR)
- Methane emissions from natural gas: Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Systems (Cornell University)
- Energy policy implications: The Influence of Shale Gas on U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
- Methane Leaks: Natural Gas Leaks Scrutinized Raise Questions about Climate Impacts (SEJ)
- List and Map: Natural gas production by country (Geology.com)
- Map and Overview: Canadian pipeline systems (EIA)
- LNG and emissions: How clean is liquified natural gas (David Suzuki)
- Overview: Natural Gas and Climate Change (David Suzuki)
- Overview: LNG Hazards and risks (Public Citizen)
- Methane Emissions: U.S. Methane Emissions Vastly Underestimated (Climate Central)
- Pipeline Disasters: List of natural gas pipeline explosions (NatGasWatch)
- “Natural gas is a finite resource. We will eventually run into depletion and higher cost.” He adds, “It still releases greenhouse gas emissions. So if we’re going to get to a point where we strictly limit those emissions, we need renewables.” -John Jacoby, MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Chang“
- Natural gas production is not sustainable — it’s also harmful to our climate. “The hydrofracking revolution that is bringing shale oil and shale gas to many parts of the world is very profitable, but it is not putting the world on a trajectory that is sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.” Jeffrey Sachs Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary‐General on the Millennium Development Goals
- We should not be drilling for oil anywhere because burning oil and coal and natural gas is what’s destroying our environment, our climate. And we need the climate if we’re going to eat.- Paul Ehrlich
- Methane leakage could make natural gas worse than coal
- ‘All of the above’ energy strategy has negative impacts across the country
- Fossil Fuel industry increases water consumption despite nationwide drought crisis
- Incentive to cut carbon: governments can limit climate damage by two-thirds
- World Bank urges leaders: ‘turn down the heat’ or face the consequences