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Natural gas , a highly flammable fossil fuel, is an important nonrenewable energy resource. Less polluting than other fossil fuels like coal and oil, natural gas is deemed relatively environmentallyfriendly, helping to increase demand for the fuel in recent years. As a hydrocarbon, natural gas is primarily composed of methane, a colorless, odorless, lighter-than-air gas.
Methane is the simplest of all the hydrocarbons in molecular makeup, consisting of one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. While natural gas is relatively clean-burning, methane itself is a greenhouse gas, more efficient at trapping heat than even carbon dioxide (the major offending gas in the enhanced greenhouse effect). Burning natural gas, as with all hydrocarbons, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Increased levels of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are thought to contribute to global warming and such related potential environmental hazards as climate change, polar ice melting, glacial retreat, and the rise in sea levels.
As is the case with other fossil fuels, natural gas is thought to have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago, with dead organic matter sinking to the bottom of ancient seas. Plankton and algae, thought to be the source material for natural gas, sank to the bottom of the seas, and slowly began to be covered in silt and other sedimentary materials. Over many millions of years, the weight of the accumulating sediment, combined with the weight of ocean water, exerted tremendous pressure on the organic material. With the pressure, heat also acted on the organic source materials and over millions of years transformed these materials into hydrocarbons in the form of natural gas. This process is similar to the formation of crude oil, and natural gas and oil are often found at similar locations today. Over time and under extreme pressure, oil and gas were forced into relatively porous sandstone or limestone, referred to as reservoir rock. Subsequent deformation of the earth’s crust acted to trap oil and gas into pockets under impermeable cap rock like marble or granite.
The three major geologic forces trapping oil and gas into pockets within the earth’s crust are folding, faulting, and pinching out. Folding results from horizontal pressure being exerted on the cap rock, forming a fold (or anticline). Faulting represents a fissure in the cap rock, with a large section of cap rock slipping down, forming a hydrocarbon-trapping cavity. In the pinching out process, impermeable rock is forced upward into the reservoir rock, resulting in pockets trapping oil and gas. In each case, as gas is lighter than oil, natural gas migrates to the top of these deposits. Geologists are able to locate oil and natural gas deposits, often deep within the earth’s crust, by looking for evidence of these geologic processes.
While the history of natural gas extends back hundreds of millions of years, its status as a natural resource of practical use by human beings is a relatively recent phenomenon. Gas seeping from the ground would occasionally be ignited by a bolt of lightning, producing a flame that confounded early civilizations. One such inexplicable flame, from around 1000 B.C.E., was found on Mount Parnassus in ancient Greece. Around 500 B.C.E., in what may mark the first human use of natural gas as a fuel, the Chinese harnessed the energy from these flames to boil seawater. The Chinese were also the first to employ a rudimentary system of piping gas by forging together sections of bamboo shoots.
The first well drilled specifically to extract naturally occurring natural gas (as opposed to gas produced from coal) was constructed in 1821 in Fredonia, New York. The well’s builder, William Hart, is widely considered the “father of natural gas” in the United States. In 1859, in what is considered the birth of the oil industry in the United States, Colonel Edwin Drake, using a derrick and drill, struck oil and natural gas nearly 70 feet below the earth’s surface. A 5.5-mile pipeline was built connecting Drake’s well to nearby Titusville, Pennsylvania.
During the 19th century natural gas was used primarily as a source of illumination. As electricity gained prominence in the late 19th century as a source of light, a much-needed market emerged for natural gas. In 1885, Robert Bunsen invented the Bunsen burner, enabling the safe control of a burning flame. Soon a market emerged for natural gas in cooking and heating homes.
After World War II, an extensive pipeline system was built, allowing natural gas to be shipped to individual households in the United States. Today, natural gas accounts for approximately 25 percent of total energy consumed in the United States. Natural gas is used to heat and cool homes, to generate electricity, and to provide fuel for residential cooking stoves. Natural gas is also being developed to power vehicles, offering an environmentfriendly alternative to gasoline-burning modes of transportation.
Extraction and Supply
Moving natural gas from its location in the earth’s crust to the end user requires an elaborate process of exploration, extraction (production), processing, shipment, storage, and further transport to local demand points. As the easiest and closest natural gas reserves have been exploited, exploration continues in deeper, more difficult to reach locations. The primary exploration technique involves the use of seismic shock waves, which are sent into the earth’s crust, reflect off underground geologic formations, and allow geologists to map the crust’s interior. Once produced by dynamite and other explosives, seismic waves are now primarily produced by vibrator trucks that “stomp” the ground.
Recent computer technology has enabled geologists to construct three and four-dimensional images of the crust’s geology. Extraction of natural gas is similar in many ways to the extraction of oil. A drilling rig is constructed, and a hole is drilled in the earth’s crust down to the natural gas deposit, allowing the gas to be brought to the surface and collected. Since natural gas from the ground often includes other compounds (gasses, oil, and water), processing removes impurities and other substances, yielding the methane that is piped to markets. Other substances removed during the processing of natural gas include ethane, propane, butane, pentane, and sulfur. Underground gas pipelines transport the processed natural gas to underground storage facilities near markets, and when needed, it is then distributed to homes and businesses.
Natural gas is not a ubiquitous resource. Some countries have a plentiful potential supply while others do not. The largest proved reserves of natural gas in the world are found in Russia (27.2 percent of the world total). The unequal distribution of natural gas in the earth’s crust is demonstrated by the fact that over 57 percent of the world’s proved reserves are found in three countries (Russia, Iran, and Qatar). Other large, but proportionally smaller reserves, are found (in descending order) in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Algeria, Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq, and Kazakhstan. Examining natural gas production (exploitation of reserves) yields a more accurate picture of current supply. The world’s largest producers of natural gas are Russia (22 percent of world production) and the United States (20 percent of world production). Other major producers include (in descending order) Canada, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Algeria, Iran, Norway, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia.
- Michael Economides, “The Coming Natural Gas Cartel,” www.foreignpolicy.com;
- Mark Finkelstein et , “Buried Hydrocarbons: A Resource for Biogenic Methane Generation,” World Oil (v.226, 2005);
- org, “From Wellhead to Burner Tip,” www.naturalgas.org;
- The Natural Gas Supply Association, “The History of Natural Gas,” www.ngsa.org;
- Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, “About Natural Gas Vehicles,” www.ngvc.org;
- Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Free Press, 1991).