Blog: How “natural” is natural gas?

Since the late ‘90s, the word “natural” has been permeating the marketplace. Everything from fresh produce, to shampoo to artificially flavoured junk food has been branded as “natural”.

This label of course, is linked to the idea of promoting and living a healthier lifestyle, it is implied that “natural” is better for you, and “natural” is better for the environment. (The less chemicals, colouring and hormones, the better!)

In light of this new slant on the definition of “natural”, it’s interesting to contemplate why natural gas doesn’t seem more contradictory. As a fossil fuel that releases harmful emissions and greenhouse gasses, it certainly isn’t good for our health, or the health of the environment.

While natural gas may not conform to our newly formed consumer definition of “natural”, it is natural by the traditional definition of “made by nature”.

Thanks to the death and decay of millions of prehistoric animals and plants that were exposed to intense heat and pressure in the bowels of the Earth, we now have fossil fuels. Fossils fuels include crude oil, (a.k.a. petroleum) coal (which we just said goodbye to, here in Ontario) and, of course, natural gas.

Despite being a fossil fuel, natural gas is often seen clean energy alternative. Why? It burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, “releasing lower levels of harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides”[1].

Like biogas, natural gas is composed of methane. Methane is known for its toxic effects on the environment, however, when methane is burned, it can be converted into heat or electricity and produces 30% less carbon dioxide than crude oil and 45% less than coal.

If biogas and natural gas are comprised of the same substance, what makes biogas any better than natural gas? It’s their origin. Natural gas comes from the aforementioned dead animals and plants, of which we have a limited supply, and biogas comes from our waste, which, unfortunately, seems to be a never ending supply in North America.

In addition to the controversy of natural gas coming from a limited supply of precious decayed animals, recent technological developments in the gas industry have created a new wave of controversy. Say hello to the new mining technique that extracts natural gas far below the surface of the Earth, you’ve probably heard of it: fracking.

Fracking is the mining for natural gas deep underground, where gas is stored in the pores of rocks like shale. Being able to reach and extract gas in such a way at such a level is an incredible feat of science that has revolutionized the mining industry, but not much is known about it.

Critics would be quick to point out the desperation of energy companies to find additional fossil fuels means they are ignoring the potential environmental hazards of fracking. Many consider fracking a stop-gap measure as society makes the transition to other energy sources…like biogas.

[1]Brinson, Linda C.. “Is natural gas a good source of energy?” 29 August 2012. 27 March 2014.

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