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Is natural gas a sustainable option?

Posted by Christopher Yee Chuin Koon on September 11, 2014

Map of Canada's natural gas pipelines. Source: Canadian Energy Pipeline Association
Map of Canada's natural gas pipelines.

With a surging global population, the world’s energy needs are going to continue to grow. Fossil fuels meet a vast majority of the earth’s energy needs, however, they produce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are harmful to the environment.

Natural gas is widely accepted as one of the cleanest of the fossil fuels and, with improved technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, natural gas extraction has become more efficient[1]. It is also one of the largest energy resources available in North America, Russia and several other countries[2]. The natural gas reserves that have been explored in the United States are enough to last for the next 92 years, given that Americans consume the same amount they did in 2011[3].

But although natural gas is the better option over other fossil fuels, during the combustion process conventional gas power plants still generate CO and destructive environmental impacts still remain a major threat – on its own, natural gas consists mostly of methane, a very potent GHG that contributes largely to global warming[4] – and there are several stages that natural gas must go through after it is extracted and before being distributed to different facilities or institutions[5].

Currently, there are no systems that are completely environmental friendly. Every system contributes to pollution or some sort of contamination of fundamental resources. Solar panels are built using highly toxic materials. Wind turbines have recently caused the death of thousands of birds because its elevation and sound waves attract flying animals. Hydroelectric dams are rather clean but have destroyed or modified the natural habitats of fishes and other aquatic life. Nuclear energy produces wastes that are very hazardous. Energy from hydrogen is not very efficient yet and the most common method of producing hydrogen is from steam reforming, which involves reactions between steam and hydrocarbons (different forms of fossil fuel). And finally, fossil fuels emit CO­2 into the atmosphere at different levels depending on what type it is.

More and more, natural gas is becoming a widely used energy system. We seem to have convinced ourselves that because it is the so-called “cleanest” of the fossil fuels, we can disregard its levels of CO2 emissions. But until engineers and scientists develop a carbon-free method of extracting and producing natural gas we should focus on developing a more efficient and cost-effective manner for introducing widespread use of renewable energy systems. Until then, using a combination of renewable systems alongside natural gas may be our best option for widespread sustainable energy systems.


[1] Exxon Mobil Corporation, "About Natural gas," [Online]. Available: http://aboutnaturalgas.com/content/key-benefits/economic-impact/.

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Information Energy Statistics," [Online]. Available: http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/iedindex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8&cid=r1,r2,r3,r4,r5,r6,r7,&syid=2010&eyid=2011&unit=MMTCD.

[3] U.S Energy Information Administration, "Frequently asked questions," U.S. Energy Information Administration, [Online]. Available: http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=58&t=8.

[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Natural Gas," 9 September 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/natural-gas.html.

[5] Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, "Natural Gas Pipelines," [Online]. Available: http://www.cepa.com/about-pipelines/types-of-pipelines/natural-gas-pipelines.

Edited from original submission.


Filed under: Students on Sustainability


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