Natural Gas: How Safe Is It for the Environment?

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Natural Gas: How Safe Is It for the Environment?

Natural gas is often retrieved from large cracks in the ground from where the gas can seep up and out of the Earth / muratart via Shutterstock

 

Many people are aware of energy sources, such as oil and coal, and renewable sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. However, not many are knowledgeable about natural gas, which is actually the primary source of energy in the US before petroleum and coal.

How does it compare to other sources of fuel, especially in terms of environmental impact?

Collecting Natural Gas

This fossil fuel is created deep beneath the surface and is composed of a number of compounds that allow it to combust. Its largest component is methane and it also contains a number of natural gas liquids and other gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor. Natural gas, like oil and coal, is formed after hundreds of millions of years beneath several layers of rock, sand, and sediment, and made from the remains of plants and animals that were subjected to large amounts of heat and pressure from sitting underneath these earth layers that changed the composition of these carbon and hydrogen-rich layers.

Natural gas is often retrieved from large cracks in the ground from where the gas can seep up and out of the Earth. It is also found underneath layers of rocks with large spaces below or can be found in tiny pores in shale and sandstone formations, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Some can even be found along with deposits of crude oil or beneath the ocean floor. In order to find it and drill it, geologists study and look for geological formations that are most likely to yield natural gas and then perform seismic surveys, which use seismic waves to check an area that may have a well. After it is found, pipelines are used to redirect the gas for collection.

Comparison with other Fossil Fuels

Compared to its cousins that make up fossil fuels, natural gas emits just half the amount of carbon dioxide when it is combusted for energy. Tailpipe emissions generated by natural gas also produce about 20% less harmful, heat-trapping gases compared to the amount created by the emissions of a vehicle when burning gasoline. However, this isn’t the extent of the effect of natural gas on the environment.

When the gas is extracted from their wells, there is a considerable amount of leakage. Considering that methane is 34 times stronger at trapping heat over a period of a century, and 86 times so in 20 years, natural gas leaks still have a considerable impact on exacerbating the greenhouse effect. It was found that in order for natural gas to have less overall cycle emissions than coal plants, it should have less than 3% methane losses. Estimates have been found to be anywhere from 1% to 9% from gas plants. Though technology and research could be employed to find ways of reducing this value, this would also mean an overhaul of current policies.

Chemicals in the Air and Land

In terms of particulates, the burning of natural gas produces only negligible amounts, especially of substances like mercury and sulfur. The nitrogen oxide produced is at much lower levels than those produced by motor vehicles, and households that make use of natural gas as a power source decrease the emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and others. Widespread reductions in these numbers could actually improve civilian health by reducing risks of lung problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. Unfortunately, it was also found that the quality of regional air is altered in areas with natural gas drilling to have increased amounts of hazardous air pollutants.

Gas drilling can harm local ecosystems due to the damage it creates in the land around them. As construction goes on, the soil can be eroded and habitats fragmented, causing the wildlife within them to seek shelter elsewhere and disrupt the balance. The minerals and dirt dug up can also find their way into streams and waterways, which could then travel to residential and urban areas or contaminate aquatic habitats.

Hazardous chemicals composed of naturally occurring radioactive materials can find their way into water supplies and pose a severe risk to people’s health / TTstudio via Shutterstock

 

Water Pollution and Earthquakes

Water contamination through gas development projects is difficult to contain and correct. Hazardous chemicals composed of naturally occurring radioactive materials can find their way into water supplies and pose a severe risk to people’s health. A sufficient amount of methane in a residential area can also cause concerns for flammability. It would very difficult to detect this, as well, considering that natural gas is both colorless and odorless. The creation of wastewater from the processes of securing natural gas also provides problems as it is troublesome to dispose of this water. It takes a great amount of time and money to make this water reusable, so oftentimes disposing of it is the only viable option.

One final problem caused by natural gas drilling is the creation of earthquakes. Although often less than 2 on the moment magnitude scale and usually undetectable, it’s been found that disposing of the water through high-pressure injection into wells has contributed to larger earthquakes, especially in the US.

While natural gas does have some advantages when compared to more harmful fossil fuels, it will take a massive overhaul of the current system to make this energy source as efficient and least harmful to the environment as possible.

 

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