What is Natural Gas?

Natural Gas is the Most important Energy Source of Our Time

Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, with other hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide. Natural gas is an important energy source to provide heating and electricity. It is also used as fuel for vehicles and as a chemical feedstock in the manufacture of plastics and other commercially important organic chemicals.

Natural gas is found in deep underground natural rock formations or associated with other hydrocarbon reservoirs in coal beds and as methane clathrates. Petroleum is also another resource found in proximity to and with natural gas. Most natural gas was created over time by two mechanisms: biogenic and thermogenic. Biogenic gas is created by methanogenic organisms in marshes, bogs, landfills, and shallow sediments. Deeper in the earth, at greater temperature and pressure, thermogenic gas is created from buried organic material.

Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo processing to clean the gas and remove impurities, including water, to meet the specifications of marketable natural gas. The by-products of processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulphide (which may be converted into pure sulfur), carbon dioxide, water vapour, and sometimes helium and nitrogen.
Natural gas is often informally referred to simply as gas, especially when compared to other energy sources such as oil or coal.

Storage and transport

Because of its low density, it is not easy to store natural gas or transport by vehicle. Natural gas pipelines are impractical across oceans. Many existing pipelines in America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians representing northern states to speak of potential shortages. In Europe, the gas pipeline network is already dense in the West.  New pipelines are planned or under construction in Eastern Europe and between gas fields in Russia, Near East and Northern Africa and Western Europe. See also List of natural gas pipelines.

LNG carriers transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) across oceans, while tank trucks can carry liquefied or compressed natural gas (CNG) over shorter distances. Sea transport using CNG carrier ships that are now under development may be competitive with LNG transport in specific conditions.

Gas is turned into liquid at a liquefaction plant, and is returned to gas form at regasification plant at the terminal. Shipborne regasification equipment is also used. LNG is the preferred form for long distance, high volume transportation of natural gas, whereas pipeline is preferred for transport for distances up to 4,000 km (2,485 mi) over land and approximately half that distance offshore.
CNG is transported at high pressure, typically above 200 bars. Compressors and decompression equipment are less capital intensive and may be economical in smaller unit sizes than liquefaction/regasification plants. Natural gas trucks and carriers may transport natural gas directly to end-users, or to distribution points such as pipelines.

Peoples Gas Manlove Field natural gas storage area in Newcomb Township, Champaign County, Illinois. In the foreground (left) is one of the numerous wells for the underground storage area, with an LNG plant, and above ground storage tanks are in the background (right).

In the past, the natural gas which was recovered in the course of recovering petroleum could not be profitably sold, and was simply burned at the oil field in a process known as flaring. Flaring is now illegal in many countries.  Additionally, companies now recognize that gas may be sold to consumers in the form of LNG or CNG, or through other transportation methods. The gas is now re-injected into the formation for later recovery. The re-injection also assists oil pumping by keeping underground pressures higher.

A "master gas system" was invented in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s, ending any necessity for flaring. Satellite observation, however, shows that flaring and venting are still practiced in some gas-extracting countries.

Natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat for desalination. Similarly, some landfills that also discharge methane gases have been set up to capture the methane and generate electricity.

Natural gas is often stored underground inside depleted gas reservoirs from previous gas wells, salt domes, or in tanks as liquefied natural gas. The gas is injected in a time of low demand and extracted when demand picks up. Storage nearby end users helps to meet volatile demands, but such storage may not always be practicable.

With 15 countries accounting for 84 per cent of the worldwide extraction, access to natural gas has become an important issue in international politics, and countries vie for control of pipelines. In the first decade of the 21st century, Gazprom, the state-owned energy company in Russia, engaged in disputes with Ukraine and Belarus over the price of natural gas, which have created concerns that gas deliveries to parts of Europe could be cut off for political reasons. Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) is an innovative technology designed to enable the development of offshore gas resources that would otherwise remain untapped because due to environmental or economic factors it is nonviable to develop them via a land-based LNG operation. FLNG technology also provides a number of environmental and economic advantages:

• Environmental – Because all processing is done at the gas field, there is no requirement for long pipelines to shore, compression units to pump the gas to shore, dredging and jetty construction, and onshore construction of an LNG processing plant, which significantly reduces the environmental footprint. Avoiding construction also helps preserve marine and coastal environments. In addition, environmental disturbance will be minimised during decommissioning because the facility can easily be disconnected and removed before being refurbished and re-deployed elsewhere.

• Economic – Where pumping gas to shore can be prohibitively expensive, FLNG makes development economically viable. As a result, it will open up new business opportunities for countries to develop offshore gas fields that would otherwise remain stranded, such as those offshore East Africa.

Many gas and oil companies are considering the economic and environmental benefits of Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG). However, for the time being, the only FLNG facility now in development is being built by Shell, due for completion around 2017.

Environmental effects

Natural gas is often described as the cleanest fossil fuel, producing less carbon dioxide per joule delivered than either coal or oil and far fewer pollutants than other hydrocarbon fuels. However, in absolute terms, it does contribute substantially to global carbon emissions, and this contribution is projected to grow. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (Working Group III Report, chapter 4), in 2004, natural gas produced about 5.3 billion tons a year of CO2 emissions, while coal and oil produced 10.6 and 10.2 billion tons respectively. According to an updated version of the SRES B2 emissions scenario by 2030 natural gas would be the source of 11 billion tons a year, with coal and oil now 8.4 and 17.2 billion respectively because demand is increasing 1.9 per cent a year. (Total global emissions for 2004 were estimated at over 27,200 million tons.)

In addition, natural gas itself is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Although natural gas is released into the atmosphere in much smaller quantities, methane is oxidized in the atmosphere into CO2, and hence natural gas affects the atmosphere for approximately 12 years, compared to CO2, which is already oxidized, and has effect for 100 to 500 years. Natural gas is composed mainly of methane, which has a radiative forcing twenty times greater than carbon dioxide. Based on such composition, a ton of methane in the atmosphere traps as much radiation as 20 tons of carbon dioxide; however, it remains in the atmosphere for 8–40 times less time. Carbon dioxide still receives the lion's share of attention concerning greenhouse gases because it is released in much larger amounts. Still, it is inevitable when natural gas is used on a large scale that some of it will leak into the atmosphere. (Coal methane not captured by coal bed methane extraction techniques is simply lost into the atmosphere. Current estimates by the EPA place global emissions of methane at 3 trillion cubic feet (85 km3) annually, or 3.2 per cent of global production. Direct emissions of methane represented 14.3 per cent of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.

Other pollutants

Natural gas produces far lower amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides than any other hydrocarbon fuel (fossil fuels). Carbon dioxide produced is 117,000 ppm vs 208,000 for burning coal. Carbon monoxide produced is 40 ppm vs 208 for burning coal. Nitrogen oxides produced is 92 ppm vs 457 for burning coal. Sulfur dioxide is 1 ppm vs 2,591 for burning coal. Mercury is 0 vs .016 for burning coal. Particulates are also a major contribution to global warming. Natural gas has 7ppm vs coal's 2,744ppm. Natural gas also has Radon, from 5 to 200,000 Becquerels per cubic meter.


According to Business Week, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which conducts much of the climate science of the United States, then surprised nearly everyone in February when they revealed that air samples from an area of Colorado with a lot of wells contained twice the amount of methane the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated came from that production method.

Safety concerns in Production

In mines, where methane seeping from rock formations has no odor, sensors are used, and mining apparatus such as the Davy lamp has been specifically developed to avoid ignition sources.
Some gas fields yield sour gas containing hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This untreated gas is toxic. Amine gas treating, an industrial scale process which removes acidic gaseous components, is often used to remove hydrogen sulfide from natural gas.

Extraction of natural gas (or oil) leads to decrease in pressure in the reservoir. Such decrease in pressure in turn may result in subsidence, sinking of the ground above. Subsidence may affect ecosystems, waterways, sewer and water supply systems, foundations, and so on.

Another ecosystem effect results from the noise of the process. This can change the composition of animal life in the area, and have consequences for plants as well in that animals disperse seeds and pollen.

Releasing the gas from low-permeability reservoirs is accomplished by a process called hydraulic fracturing or "hydrofracking". To allow the natural gas to flow out of the shale, oil operators force 1 to 9 million US gallons (34,000 m3) of water mixed with a variety of chemicals through the wellbore casing into the shale. The high pressure water breaks up or "fracks" the shale, which releases the trapped gas. Sand is added to the water as a proppant to keep the fractures in the shale open, thus enabling the gas to flow into the casing and then to the surface. The chemicals are added to the frack fluid to reduce friction and combat corrosion. During the extracting life of a gas well, other low concentrations of other chemical substances may be used, such as biocides to eliminate fouling, scale and corrosion inhibitors, oxygen scavengers to remove a source of corrosion, and acids to clean the perforations in the pipe.

Dealing with fracking fluid can be a challenge. Along with the gas, 30 per cent to 70 per cent of the chemically laced frack fluid, or flow back, returns to the surface. Additionally, a significant amount of salt and other minerals, once a part of the rock layers that were under prehistoric seas, may be incorporated in the flow back as they dissolve in the frack fluid.


In order to assist in detecting leaks, a minute amount of odorant is added to the otherwise colorless and almost odorless gas used by consumers. The odor has been compared to the smell of rotten eggs, due to the added tert-Butylthiol (t-butyl mercaptan). Sometimes a related compound, thiophane may be used in the mixture. Situations in which an odorant that is added to natural gas can be detected by analytical instrumentation, but cannot be properly detected by an observer with a normal sense of smell, have occurred in the natural gas industry. This is caused by odor masking, when one odorant overpowers the sensation of another. As of 2011, the industry is conducting research on the causes of odor masking.

Explosions caused by natural gas leaks occur a few times each year. Individual homes, small businesses and other structures are most frequently affected when an internal leak builds up gas inside the structure. Frequently, the blast will be enough to significantly damage a building but leave it standing. In these cases, the people inside tend to have minor to moderate injuries. Occasionally, the gas can collect in high enough quantities to cause a deadly explosion, disintegrating one or more buildings in the process. The gas usually dissipates readily outdoors, but can sometimes collect in dangerous quantities if flow rates are high enough. However, considering the tens of millions of structures that use the fuel, the individual risk of using natural gas is very low.

Natural gas heating systems are a minor source of carbon monoxide deaths in the United States. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (2008), 56 per cent of unintentional deaths from non-fire CO poisoning were associated with engine-driven tools like gas-powered generators and lawn mowers. Natural gas heating systems accounted for 4 per cent of these deaths. Improvements in natural gas furnace designs have greatly reduced CO poisoning concerns. Detectors are also available that warn of carbon monoxide and/or explosive gas (methane, propane, etc.).

Energy content, statistics, and pricing

Quantities of natural gas are measured in normal cubic meters (corresponding to 0 °C at 101.325 kPa) or in standard cubic feet (corresponding to 60 °F (16 °C) and 14.73 psia). The gross heat of combustion of one cubic meter of commercial quality natural gas is around 39 megajoules (≈10.8 kWh), but this can vary by several percent. This comes to about 49 megajoules (≈13.5 kWh) for one kg of natural gas (assuming 0.8 kg/m^3, an approximate value).

The price of natural gas varies greatly depending on location and type of consumer. In 2007, a price of $7 per 1,000 cubic feet (28 m3) was typical in the United States. The typical caloric value of natural gas is roughly 1,000 British thermal units (BTU) per cubic foot, depending on gas composition. This corresponds to around $7 per million BTU, or around $7 per gigajoule. In April 2008, the wholesale price was $10 per 1,000 cubic feet (28 m3) ($10/MMBTU). The residential price varies from 50 per cent to 300 per cent more than the wholesale price. At the end of 2007, this was $12–$16 per 1,000 cu ft (28 m3). Natural gas in the United States is traded as a futures contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Each contract is for 10,000 MMBTU (~10,550 gigajoules), or 10 billion BTU. Thus, if the price of gas is $10 per million BTUs on the NYMEX, the contract is worth $100,000.

European Union

As one of the world's largest importers of natural gas, the EU is a major player on the international gas market.
Gas prices for end users vary greatly across the EU. A single European energy market, one of the key objectives of the European Union, should level the prices of gas in all EU member states.

United States

In US units, one standard cubic foot of natural gas produces around 1,028 British thermal units (BTU). The actual heating value when the water formed does not condense is the net heat of combustion and can be as much as 10 per cent less.

In the United States, retail sales are often in units of therms (th); 1 therm = 100,000 BTU. Gas meters measure the volume of gas used, and this is converted to therms by multiplying the volume by the energy content of the gas used during that period, which varies slightly over time. Wholesale transactions are generally done in decatherms (Dth), or in thousand decatherms (MDth), or in million decatherms (MMDth). A million decatherms is roughly a billion cubic feet of natural gas. Gas sales to domestic consumers may be in units of 100 standard cubic feet (Ccf).


Canada uses metric measure for internal trade of petrochemical products. Consequently, natural gas is sold by the Gigajoule, a measure approximately equal to 1/2 of a barrel (250lbs) of oil, or 1 million BTUs, or 1000 cu ft of gas, or 28cu metres of gas.


In the rest of the world, natural gas is sold in Gigajoule retail units. LNG (liquefied natural gas) and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) are traded in metric tons or mmBTU as spot deliveries. Long term natural gas distribution contracts are signed in cubic metres, and LNG contracts are in metric tonnes (1,000kg). The LNG and LPG is transported by specialized transport ships, as the gas is liquified at cryogenic temperatures. The specification of each LNG/LPG cargo will usually contain the energy content, but this information is in general not available to the public.

In the Russian Federation, Gazprom sold approximately 250 billion cubic metres of natural gas in 2008