This odorless, colorless gas has been creeping up more and more recently as a green alternative energy to coal or oil. But, is it as “green” as it claims to be? And what exactly is natural gas in the first place?
Natural gas is nothing new. In fact, many believe it was discovered in the Middle East sometime before 2000 BC! Native Americans have been lighting the gases that seep into and around Lake Erie for centuries. The Ancient Chinese even built a pipeline out of bamboo for the gas in 500 BC.
Natural gas is mostly composed of methane (CH4), but there are other gases mixed in as well such as ethane, butane, propane and naphtha. Methane itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than regular old CO2. The higher potency means methane is better at trapping in radiation than CO2. However, methane does not stick around as long as CO2 does in the atmosphere.
According to the EPA, pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on the climate is 25 times greater than CO2 over 100 years!
Some of you may be thinking methane is awful for the environment, and you are correct. Unused methane, whether it seeped up from the ground, leaked out of a pipeline, or came from a cow, is very bad for the environment. But, the key word here is unused.
Whether you are burning coal, oil, wood, natural gas, or even your own hair, CO2 and water are produced by nature of the combustion reaction. The big take away here is just how much CO2 is produced at the end of this combustion reaction.
Natural gas produces less than half the CO2 emissions of coal when burned in equal amounts. When natural gas is burned to heat homes or for industrial uses, it releases 25-30% less CO2 than oil and 40-50% less than coal per unit of energy. That’s a pretty big improvement.
So, to sum it all up, is natural gas better than conventional fossil fuels?
Certainly yes. It is a cleaner, “greener” burning fuel.
Is natural gas the end all be all in alternative energy?
Certainly not. When burned natural gas continues to produce CO2. Unburned methane that escapes into the atmosphere might actually be worse than CO2.
We still have a long way to go in cutting back our greenhouse gas emissions. But, in many ways moving towards natural gas is a fair place to start. And in the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”