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Examining the pros and cons of natural gas

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By illuminem

· 13 min read

This article is part of an educational series to spread free & quality sustainability knowledge for all.

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas is an energy source from fossil fuels that contain methane and other hydrocarbon gas liquids, it is often considered as a transitional energy source before going to renewable ones
  • Natural gas emits less greenhouse emissions compared to burning coal and oil, is abundant, and relatively cheap
  • On the other hand, it still is not renewable energy and still uses fossil fuels that are considered finite, can disrupt natural habitats, create pollution, generate emissions, and experience methane leaks


Introduction to natural gas

Natural gas is often deemed a greener alternative for electricity generation compared to other fossil fuel energy sources. That’s why some have used it as transitional energy from non-renewable to renewable sources. More investments are being made into the natural gas industry, with the US putting billions into a major expansion of export infrastructure. 

But is it a good decision to ramp up on energy that still comes from fossil fuels? In this article, we’ll get to know more about this energy source, its production methods, and the pros and cons of natural gas. In the end, we’ll find out whether it’s truly a cleaner alternative or needs to be abandoned if we want a more sustainable way of electricity generation. 

What is natural gas and where does it come from?

Natural gas comes from fossil fuels and contains many different compounds with methane being the majority. It can be used as a fuel and as a precursor to materials and chemicals. It’s formed from the remains of tiny animals and plants that died millions of years ago which are buried under sand, silt, and rock. 

The pressure and heat changed the formation of the substance into coal, oil, and some into natural gas. Natural gas can be found on land and offshore or deep in the ocean floor. They’re located in the large cracks between layers of rock, tiny spores within sedimentary rocks, or the deposits of crude oil.  

Pros and cons of natural gas

So, is using natural gas going to help with climate change? Let’s list the pros and cons of natural gas as an energy source. 

Advantages of natural gas 

  • It is effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to oil and coal. As mentioned, the usage of natural gas as fuel creates around 41% less carbon dioxide than coal and 26% less carbon dioxide than oil.

  • It’s an on-demand energy. Natural gas can be stored and used as needed, minimizing the possibility of energy blackouts. 

  • It’s an abundant energy source. There are natural gas resources found all over the world, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or even the Arctic around Alaska. 

  • While operating costs vary, natural gas prices are cheaper compared to other fuels like oil and coal. As of March 6, 2024, its price is USD 1.66/MMBtu according to Henry Hub.  

  • The industry employs millions of jobs through exploration, production, and distribution. 

Disadvantages of natural gas 

  • It disrupts the surrounding environment through exploration, production, and distribution. Habitats are lost due to land clearing, and wildlife and communities will be disturbed by noise and air pollution due to processing plants. 

  • Although it’s abundant, it’s still derived from fossil fuels which is a finite resource. Relying on fossil fuel energy may lead to scarcity in the end if we’re not shifting to renewable energies to generate electricity any time soon. 

  • Even if the use of natural gas generates less emissions, there are still possibilities of leaking. As it turns out, natural gas leaks might lead to bigger issues as methane is a more potent greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide. 

  • Aside from greenhouse gas emissions, leaks could lead to explosions due to aging infrastructure. There are plenty of incidents where compressed natural gas in the transportation pipeline exploded and created a massive fire, killing and injuring workers. Liquefied gas is also highly volatile when in process and storage, as demonstrated by the compressor station explosion in Washington State in 2014. 

  • Processing plants might lead to water contamination and scarcity. Water resources that can be used for communities might be siphoned or disrupted by the natural gas facilities. Fracking in particular requires huge amounts of water and chemicals, which could contaminate groundwater. 

A closer look at the effects of natural gas and its greenhouse gas emissions

Natural gas and carbon emissions

As mentioned, natural gas extraction, hydraulic fracturing, processing, and distribution involve different treatments that might cause disturbances to nature. It destroys habitat, waste and contaminates water, and emits greenhouse gasses.  

During exploration, several techniques such as agitation and explosive materials are used. This will disrupt local communities, wildlife, and vegetation. Drilling production wells and putting down distribution pipes will then clear even more area and habitat. In the production process, contaminated water is produced.

This must be properly handled or it will pollute surrounding water sources. The equipment and compressors also produce noise and air pollutants. Natural gas is also sometimes further processed by flaring, which is burning at well sites. This is because the products contain hydrogen sulfide or are not economical to transport via pipelines. This process produces carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and others. 

When it comes to CO2 emissions, natural gas is relatively clean when compared to coal or oil. Burning natural gas results in fewer emissions for an equal amount of energy. 

For every unit of heat (called a million British thermal units, or MMBtu) that we get from burning them, natural gas gives off the least CO2 at 117 pounds. Coal is the dirtiest, releasing 200 pounds of CO2, and oil is in the middle, with 160 pounds for the same heat. 

All this roughly equates to natural gas emitting 41% less carbon dioxide than coal and 26% less carbon dioxide than oil.

What are the risks of producing natural gas?

On the other hand, there’s another factor people don’t take into account that might make natural gas a risky energy: leaks. Natural gas may leak from several different sources, such as wells, storage tanks, transportation pipelines, and processing plants. What makes this alarming is that natural gas contains one of the strongest greenhouse gases, methane. 

Methane is about 28 times more dangerous than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere, and methane emissions have doubled over the last two centuries. A study in a natural gas system found that around 3.7% of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere, which is enough to offset the advantages of natural gas burns compared to coal

How is natural gas extracted?

The extraction of natural gas will start with the study of the structure of geologic formations that possibly have natural gas deposits. Geologists will survey the area and measure seismic waves to get information on the rock formation. 

This process might involve the use of a thumper truck to agitate an area or even explosives. If the area has potential, they will drill exploratory wells to take samples. Finally, production wells are drilled vertically or horizontally into the gas-bearing formation. The wells are sometimes flushed with water, chemicals, or sand under high pressure to force the release of the natural gas. 

This process is called hydraulic fracturing or fracking to break up formation and collect the natural gas in pipelines through to the processing plants. 

How is natural gas produced and distributed? 

Natural gas production

After extraction, the extracted, wet natural gas that contains methane, natural gas liquids (NGLs), nonhydrocarbons, and water vapor is processed in specialized tanks to make it ready for distribution. The water vapor and nonhydrocarbons are removed via chemical reactions and NGLs are separated to be sold as a different product. The basic stages of natural gas processing and treatments are as follows:

  • Gas-oil-water separator: A pressurized separation of liquids from gasses

  • Condensate separator: Condensates are also removed with separators and work much like the first gas-oil-water separator

  • Dehydration: Removes water that may condense from the previous process

  • Contaminant removal: Nonhydrocarbon gasses are removed through a vessel containing an amine solution

  • Nitrogen extraction: The gas is then streamed into Nitrogen Rejection Unit

  • Methane separation: Cryogenic processing and absorption methods might be used to separate methane from Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids (HGLs)

  • Fractionation: HGLs are separated using temperature control and varying boiling points of each HGL

The finished products are then sent to consumers or distribution companies. There might be leaks during production and distribution, that’s why chemicals called odorants are added so that any breach can be detected. Natural gas can be stored when demands are low in underground facilities or storage tanks so that it can be used during peak hours. 

The current state of natural gas and some renewable alternative energy sources

In 2024, the US is by far the world’s largest natural gas producer at 1.03 trillion cubic meters which is about a quarter of the world’s consumption. Russia is second at 699 billion, while Iran and China are at 244 and 219 billion respectively.

In terms of consumption, the US again leads the pack at 21.7%, while Russia, China, and Iran are at 12.4%, 5.4% and 5.2% respectively.

Due to its popularity, countries and companies plan to expand their natural gas production. However, in doing so, they might drive us off-course on reaching the Paris Agreement target, which is preventing global warming beyond 1.5 degrees C and slowing down climate change. 

Increased natural gas use can be a solution for countries where coal and oil dominate energy production, but elsewhere, we need to stop the extraction and commissioning of production and start moving on to renewable energy sources. Examples of alternatives that can be a better choice for climate change are as follows.

  • Wind - Wind power transforms kinetic energy into electricity. It’s abundant, cost-effective, and inexhaustible. Wind farms release no emissions, use no water, and have smaller, nontoxic footprints. Wind power is also very versatile and turbines can be placed in open land, mountain ridges, or offshore
  • Solar - Solar energy is derived from capturing sunlight and converting it into electricity by using solar cells. It’s one of the fastest-growing renewable energies due to its versatility. Solar cells are modular and can come in various sizes, depending on needs. The energy costs of solar cell production are highly efficient and have also decreased thanks to research and development in the industry
  • Water - Hydropower is generated from flowing water. Like wind, the kinetic energy is converted to electricity. When used properly, it can be one of the largest sources of renewable energy. For example, Norway’s major source of energy is 99% hydropower. It also allows Bhutan to become the first carbon-negative country and even export some of its leftover power to its neighbors
  • Biogas - Biogas is renewable energy produced by the breakdown of organic materials such as food and animal waste. Biogas can be used to fuel vehicles and replace natural gas for cooking and heating
  • Hydrogen fuel - Clean energy that can be produced from sources such as biomass, solar, and wind. It burns cleanly and only creates nontoxic vapor as its by-product when generating electricity and heat, leading to less carbon emissions.  


Is natural gas renewable?

Unfortunately, natural gas is nonrenewable. It comes from remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago due to large amounts of pressure and heat. Although it’s comparatively cleaner than coal or oil, the disadvantage of natural gas is that it still generates emissions and comes from finite sources.

Which country produces the most natural gas?

The country that produces the most natural gas energy is the United States, with over 4.09 trillion cubic meters produced in 2022, or about 24.2% of the total global natural gas output. The United States is also the world’s largest exporter of natural gas including liquefied ones. This is due to advances and innovation in the fracking and drilling process, making natural gas one of the most economically feasible fuel sources in the US. 

How much does natural gas cost?

The price of natural gas varies according to location and other factors, but its current price as of January 2024 is USD 1.66/MMBtu as of March 6, 2024. It’s cheaper than other non-renewable energies, such as coal and oil. The cost of natural gas is around USD 8.24 per billion BTU, while coal is USD 10.18 per billion BTU and oil is USD 19.73 per billion BTU.

How much natural gas is left?

It’s estimated that the world has natural gas reserves equivalent to 52.3 times of annual gas consumption, which means there are around 52 years of natural gas left. Unexplored natural gas might still exist as it’s abundant, prolonging its lifetime.


Natural gas is a form of non-renewable energy with lower emissions than fossil fuels like oil and coal. It’s also abundant, cheaper, and can be easily stored for use during peak periods like the heating season. On the other hand, there are still plenty of disadvantages of natural gas, like it can destroy natural habitats, contaminate soil and water, generate air and noise pollution, and experience dangerous leaks. 

Knowing these advantages and disadvantages, it’s clear that natural gas energy should only be considered as a transitional source, and more efforts toward renewable sources are needed. It can be transitional in countries that still use coal and oil, but it should be phased out as soon as possible in ones that already use it. Reliance on natural gas will derail our plan of slowing down global warming, as emissions and pollution will still happen.


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