Below, we list the potential 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 Energy
Has a range of different uses across society
May emit less greenhouse gas than other fossil fuels during combustion
May emit less air pollutants than some other fossil fuels
May be an affordable energy source
May have economic benefits
Distribution networks and support infrastructure are well developed and established
May be a suitable backup energy source to variable energy sources in a power grid
Biogas (RNG) might be considered renewable
There might be big reserves of gas to tap into in the future, such as beneath the ocean
Is still responsible for greenhouse gas emissions
Not renewable – is finite like other fossil fuels
Drilling for gas can have negative environmental side effects
Fracking may lead to environmental issues
Gas infrastructure may age and leak, cost money to maintain, and explosions and gas fires may be a potential risk
Natural gas may have some similar potential major benefits and drawbacks as some of the other main fossil fuels.
Some of the major potential benefits might be that it’s helped with economic development in the past (and still does), it’s used widely across society, and the technology and infrastructure for natural gas is well developed/established
Some of the major potential drawbacks might be that it’s responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, and the extraction of natural gas can lead to issues too
Natural gas might be somewhat unique amongst the main fossil fuels, because it’s reported to emit less carbon than coal, and can be a reasonably cheap energy source with a good energy density
For this reason, some consider it a ‘transitionary’ energy source whereby less coal can be used, and more natural gas can be used for some applications. The US might be an example of a country that has begun doing this
However, some might call this a form of greenwashing as natural gas is ultimately still a fossil fuel, and is made mostly of methane (a GHG with a global warming potential higher than carbon)
The information in this guide contains broad generalisations.
Ultimately, each source of energy in each geographic location around the world has it’s own variables to consider, and requires it’s own individual assessment.
Potential Pros Of Natural Gas Energy
Has Different Uses
Natural gas has a wide range of uses across society
Some of the main uses are for electricity generation, and for industrial uses
But, natural gas can be used for a range of other things too, such as in transport as a fuel, as well as in the commercial and residential sectors
May Emit Less Greenhouse Gases Than Other Fossil Fuels During Combustion
Natural gas may have a lower greenhouse gas emission rate than other fossil fuels – coal, and oil/petroleum
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 transitionary energy source to transition away from, or reduce coal use for some applications
Some major countries like the US have already increased their natural gas use in the past few decades
May Emit Less Air Pollutants Than Some Other Fossil Fuels
Some reports also indicate that natural gas also emits fewer outdoor air pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide compared to other fossil fuels.
One side effect of this may be better air quality in areas where more natural gas is used over more polluting energy sources.
May Be An Affordable Energy Source
In some countries, natural gas can be affordable compared to some other energy sources.
Some reports indicate it’s the cheapest source of electrical power per kilowatt hour in some countries.
This may particularly be true in some countries where natural gas is abundant domestically/locally.
May Have Economic Benefits
– Providing Employment & Incomes
Several reports indicate that in the US alone, the conventional and unconventional natural gas industries employ millions of people.
If demand for natural gas increases in the future, this number may only grow.
In addition to people employed directly in the natural gas industry, there’s also people employed indirectly, such as engineers, service technicians, lawyers and other contractors.
There’s also the employees in the industries that depend on natural gas for energy and fuel, or for other uses.
Natural gas is available as an energy source in most cities and regions worldwide.
It’s not limited in availability in the same way that an energy source like geothermal energy might be.
Distribution Networks & Support Infrastructure Are Well Developed & Established
Part of the reason natural gas energy is widely available is because distribution networks and support infrastructure have been well developed and established over time.
May Be A Suitable Backup Energy Source For Variable Energy Sources In A Power Grid
Energy sources like solar and wind might be variable energy sources, and might need backup energy sources to provide a more reliable power grid
bseec.org mentions that (paraphrased) coal and nuclear plants may take hours or days to cycle up and down, whereas natural gas units can be fired up almost immediately
Gas generators and hydro generators in general might be suitable as backup energy sources
Essentially, energy grids that rely heavily on variables energy sources, might benefit from natural gas to offset this variable energy, and provide more consistent and reliable power output to the grid
Biogas Might Be Renewable
RNG (renewable natural gas) is a form of biogas, and might be considered renewable
However, biogas may be considered unsustainable in some ways too
Might Be Big Reserves Of Natural Gas To Tap Into In The Future
Researchers are working on ways to extract the potentially vast amounts of natural gas reserves left on Earth, such as the resources trapped beneath the ocean in gas hydrates that are currently hard to physically and/or economically access or recover
Getting access to currently undiscovered or unrecoverable natural gas resource may increase the amount of recoverable natural gas resources and reserves in the future, and help increase supply
Potential Cons Of Natural Gas
Still Responsible For Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Despite being reported as a cleaner burning energy source in terms of greenhouse emissions than coal and petroleum, natural gas still emits greenhouse gases during combustion.
Natural gas is actually comprised mostly of methane – which has a global warming potential that is much higher than carbon dioxide.
That’s only the combustion of natural gas too.
There’s also the extraction process of natural gas to consider – drilling for natural can leak methane into the atmosphere
Flaring at oil fields can also release methane.
Another underrated source of greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas might be leaks in natural gas distribution pipelines.
One report indicates that 33 percent of total methane emissions come from emissions from the natural gas and petroleum industries
When adding all these things together, some groups might suggest that labelling natural gas as a ‘clean’ alternative or ‘transitionary’ energy source compared to coal or oil, is misleading
It’s ultimately still a fossil fuel, and is still responsible for greenhouse gas emissions
Is Not Renewable
There are finite supplies of natural gas available, and natural gas is considered a non renewable fossil fuel.
By comparison, energy sources like solar and wind are considered renewable.
Drilling For Gas May Have Negative Environmental Side Effects
Drilling for natural gas and hydraulic fracturing may have some of it’s own unique environmental side effects to consider, such as pollution, land degradation, and impacting local ecosystems and wildlife.
Read more about the potential negative effects of mining in general in this guide.
Fracking Might Lead To Environmental Issues
Fracking is another term for hydraulic fracturing, and is a specific type of drilling technology.
It involves water, sand and chemicals being injected underground as part of the drilling process.
There is considerable debate about the environmental damage caused by fracking.
Some reports indicate it’s safe or does not pose a large risk.
Other reports indicate that groundwater contamination might be an issue where there is poor transportation, storage and disposal practices for fracking wastewater
There’s also debate as to whether fracking contributes to micro-earthquakes
Gas Infrastructure May Age & Leak, Cost Money To Maintain, & Explosions & Fires May Be A Potential Risk
Several of the issues related to gas infrastructure and pipelines that need to be managed are:
Gas infrastructure and pipelines cost money to construct, and then to maintain and repair
Gas infrastructure and pipelines age over time, and can leak
– Potential Safety Risks & Hazards
Explosions and gas fires may be potential hazards or safety risks where there’s gas infrastructure and distribution networks