In this guide, we list the pros and cons of natural gas energy.
This guide forms part of a series of guides we have put together outlining the benefits and disadvantages of different energy sources and energy generation methods.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Natural Gas
Has a range of different uses
Emits less outdoor air pollution when burnt compared to other fossil fuels
Is inexpensive as an energy source
Employs a significant amount of people in society
Has established distribution and infrastructure networks
Can be turned on and ramped up to provide electricity very quickly to a power grid
Biogas (RNG) is renewable
There might be big reserves of gas to tap into in the future, such as beneath the ocean
Not as much of a green energy source as some other energy sources (still emits greenhouse gases, and emits air pollution when burnt)
Mining for gas can have negative environmental side effects
Fracking can have massive negative environmental side effects
Gas infrastructure ages and can leak, and explosions or gas fires are also a risk
Overall, natural gas is a cleaner and cheaper energy source than coal and oil according to some measures.
Major countries like the US and China have, or are currently, increasing their usage of natural gas.
It might be considered by some to be a ‘bridge’ energy and fuel source from fossil fuels like coal and oil, to other cleaner energy sources.
Over the next century or so, we might see natural gas become a more prominent energy source in more countries’ energy mixes.
*Note – the above pros and cons are broad generalisations.
Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy project that impact the final pros and cons (like new technology that reduces emissions for coal power plants just as one of many examples).
Each energy project and situation (in different countries and cities) should be analysed individually.
Having said that, some broad principles and patterns about the pros and cons of different energy sources tend to stay consistent too.
What Is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel.
It’s formed from decayed organic material transformed by high temperatures and pressures over millions of years into bubbles of methane gas.
Sources Of Natural Gas – Conventional vs Unconventional
There might be two main sources of natural gas – conventional and unconventional.
Conventional sources are found in underground gas fields or oil fields.
Unconventional sources are more challenging to extract because the gas is locked inside the sediment.
These include coal bed methane (trapped in the coalbed), tight gas (trapped in sandstone), gas hydrates (trapped in ice) and shale gas (trapped in shale).
[Fracking via hydraulic fracturing is a modern way to access unconventional sources of natural gas]
Pros Of Natural Gas Energy
Has Different Uses
Can be used for heating and cooking in buildings as one example, but can also be used in vehicles as fuel.
afdc.energy.gov indicates that renewable natural gas (RNG) and conventional natural gas, must be compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) for use in vehicles.
Apart from energy, natural gas is used to make plastics and fertilizers.
Emits Less Greenhouse Gases Than Other Fossil Fuels When Burning
Natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to some testing results, natural gas produces less than half the carbon dioxide of coal, and about a half to a third less than petroleum.
For this reason, some see it as a ‘bridge’ energy source that might be used in between coal and renewables.
Some major countries have already, or are beginning to transition from coal to natural gas
Emits Less Air Pollutants Than Other Fossil Fuels
Some sources say natural gas also emits fewer amounts of outdoor air pollutant chemicals like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide compared to other fossil fuels.
This means air quality in the area might be better.
It’s Inexpensive As An Energy Source
In the U.S. market, it is an abundant resource and currently the cheapest source of electrical power according to some reports (although this may differ from state to state)
Per kilowatt hour, some reports indicate that it is cheaper than, coal, hydroelectric and solar.
The Gas Industry Employs A lot Of People
The number of people employed in conventional and unconventional natural gas industries in the US alone runs into the millions, and that number is only expected to grow over time.
Not only is there people directly employed in the natural gas supply chain, but there’s also more indirect jobs like engineers, construction workers, service technicians, lawyers etc. that are employed through the natural gas and oil industries.
Natural gas is available domestically in many countries worldwide.
Established Distribution & Infrastructure Networks
Natural gas is a well established energy source in major countries around the world.
Natural gas already has distribution networks built, and infrastructure set up.
Can Be Turned On & Provide Electricity Very Quickly To A Power Grid
Where it takes hours or even days to cycle coal or nuclear plants up and down, natural gas units can be fired up at will with just minutes’ notice (bseec.org)
[This benefits energy grids like Texas for example that heavily rely on wind energy. Natural gas power capacity can offset the variable nature of wind energy]
Biogas Is Renewable
Renewable natural gas (RNG) is essentially biogas—the gaseous product of the decomposition of organic matter (afdc.energy.gov)
Might Be Big Reserves To Tap Into In The Future
Researchers are working on ways to extract the potentially vast amounts of natural gas reserves trapped beneath the ocean in gas hydrates
Natural Gas Energy Cons
Not A Green Energy Source
Despite being cleaner burning in terms of greenhouse emissions than coal and petroleum, natural gas still emits greenhouse gases during combustion.
Flaring at oil fields can also release methane.
Another underrated source of greenhouse gas emissions is from leaks in natural gas distribution pipelines.
Some sources indicate that 33 percent of total methane emissions come from emissions from the natural gas and petroleum industries
Overall, emissions are obviously an issue for combating climate change.
This is in comparison to solar and wind energy for example which are renewable and almost unlimited in supply.
Mining For Gas Can Have Negative Environmental Side Effects
Read more about the potential negative effects of mining in this guide.
Fracking Might Have Big Environmental Issues
There is considerable debate about the environmental damage caused by fracking.
Evidence of groundwater contamination by drilling is mixed, but there might be potential for contamination from poor transportation, storage and disposal practices of fracking wastewater.
Micro-earthquakes are also a claimed potential side effect of fracking.
Gas Infrastructure Costs & Maintenance, & Leaks & Explosions
Gas pipelines are not cheap to construct, and as they age, they also need maintenance.
Gas pipelines are also vulnerable to the risk of leaks and explosions as they age, or if there is a fault in the construction.
Countries transitioning to natural gas also face several challenges in doing so when transitioning infrastructure too.
Natural Gas Consumption & Use Right Now
[natural gas] supplies 22% of the world’s energy, used in heating, electricity generation and even as engine fuel (environmentalscience.org)
Having said that, natural gas makes up a different % share of each individual country’s energy mix.
The Potential Future Of Natural Gas Energy
According to several forecasts, the consumption of natural gas is only expected to grow in the future.
In several major countries, a transition from coal to natural gas has already happened – the United States is an example of this.
China might be looking at increasing it’s natural gas consumption in the future.
Natural gas is a growing industry
… consumption is growing every year and the EIA projects it will have doubled by 2040.