Bonjour, oh spinacheaters everywhere. Merry-after-Christmas! I hope that everyone celebrated with delightful things like presents, spinach, and eggnog made out of sustain-ably harvested soybeans. (Just kidding. I hope you’re drinking the real deal and loving every last bit of it.)
And now that we are all done with Christmas, I am providing you with something truly sweet: your very first crunchie! Yes, you’re welcome. This article is brought to you by my stove, and by those pop-up ads I see everywhere on the internet telling me that natural gas is going to power America forever, because it is made from two parts the American dream, one part the pursuit of happiness, and one part George Washington’s sweat mixed with some flakes of the Constitution, or something like that.
So, what is natural gas, anyway? Natural gas is a naturally-occurring byproduct of petroleum and hydrocarbon reserves that is typically composed primarily (70 – 90% composition) of methane (CH4). This is normally present along with ethane, propane, butane, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and trace amounts of rare gasses (Argon, Helium, Neon, George Washington’s sweat, etc). It’s formed in one of two processes. The first of these are biologically based, forming large quantities of gas in shallow reserves in bogs, marshes, swamps, and landfills. The second way natural gas can form is through heat-and-pressure related processes as a natural byproduct in traditional petroleum reserves. All fossil fuels are formed by subjecting decaying organic matter to high temperature and pressure conditions deep in the Earth (insert snarky geology/dead dinosaur joke here). Whether you get liquid or gaseous formations, and in what percentage, largely depend on the pressure and temperature conditions. Natural gas fields can occur “associated” with a liquid reservoir or by themselves (“unassociated.”) The gas is highly combustible and releases a large amount of energy when burned, which is why it’s used for things like heating homes and powering Metro busses around the DC metro area with snotty comments on the side about how they’re running on such a clean fuel source (more on that in a bit.) Back in the 19th century, when oil was so plentiful that it caused things like the Texas oil boom and TV shows about Beverly Hills Hillbillies, natural gas was typically just burned off the top of a reservoir before actual pumping and extraction happened. It was expensive to pipe natural gas places, so unless there was an immediate market for it right in the well location, there wasn’t much reason. But, as oil became less plentiful, gas became a pricier commodity, and its value went up enough that it was profitable to companies to pipe natural gas from place to place.
Why is it such a big deal, and why do so many companies sell natural gas as ‘clean’? Why it’s such a big deal: Because it’s energy, because it’s energy we know how to use right now, and America has a lot of it. And when I say “we” know how to use it, I mean that the processes by which natural gas is extracted and transported are carried out by the same companies (hence why they’re called the “oil and gas” sector), so we already have huge, gigantic corporations with a vested interest in this business sector. Natural gas is often called “clean” because, by comparison to gasoline, diesel, and coal, burning natural gas creates fewer emissions of both greenhouse gasses as well as other pollutants (NOx, SOx, and heavy metals, and particulates.)
Then….what’s the problem? The reasons natural gas is not actually clean are twofold. (Chandler in the box, holding up two fingers, anyone?) One, although burning natural gas itself has fewer emissions, the life-cycle analysis of natural gas as a fuel source isn’t so pretty. In order to be useable, everything but pure methane has to be burned off. The refinement process is energy intensive, and creates emissions which – if counted with the ‘total package’ of natural gas – up its emissions levels to being on par with other fossil fuel sources. Furthermore, methane (natural gas itself) is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. So even though people more often focus on carbon emission levels, burning up a whole bunch of methane isn’t exactly the greatest way to get around that. Second, and more importantly, is the issue of hydraulic fracturing. To extract natural gas is an incredibly water and energy intensive process which involves injecting high levels of chemicals mixed with thousands of gallons of fresh water deep into the Earth, with effects on groundwater sources that are hotly debated. Translation: we know they’re bad, but the companies lobbying in favor of natural gas as a fuel source continue to insist that it’s not a problem. I’ll do another crunchie on “fracking” later to get into that, but suffice to say for now – sure, natural gas is a domestic fuel source. But by extracting it, we’re ruining an even more critical resource: our fresh water supply. Not only does the process of extraction consume enormous volumes of water that could be used for way better things, it leaves behind contaminated aquifers. The result is the people I’ve posted on this site before who can light their tap water on fire.
The Bottom Line: Natural gas may be a domestic source of energy, and it may be plentiful. But, it is still a fossil fuel, and it isn’t the ‘clean’ source that many groups would have us believe. It is neither a renewable source of energy nor is it one that we can extract and use without significant negative impacts. Is it worth the risk? That’s a judgment call, but I know what mine would be. As for what this means in Spinachland: you’re just going to have to wait on that. (Bwahah!) I will be writing on other fuel sources soon, and then how they stack up against one another.