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Natural gas explained Natural gas and the environment

Natural gas has many qualities that make it an efficient, relatively clean burning, and economical energy source. However, the production and use of natural gas have some environmental and safety issues to consider.

Natural gas is a relatively clean burning fossil fuel

Burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal or petroleum products to produce an equal amount of energy. About 117 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced per million British thermal units (MMBtu) equivalent of natural gas compared with more than 200 pounds of CO2 per MMBtu of coal and more than 160 pounds per MMBtu of distillate fuel oil. The clean burning properties of natural gas have contributed to increased natural gas use for electricity generation and as a transportation fuel for fleet vehicles in the United States.

Natural gas is mainly methane—a strong greenhouse gas

Some natural gas leaks into the atmosphere from oil and natural gas wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing plants. These leaks were the source of about 32% of total U.S. methane emissions and about 4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 20151. The oil and natural gas industry takes steps to prevent natural gas leaks.

Natural gas exploration, drilling, and production affects the environment

When geologists explore for natural gas deposits on land, they may disturb vegetation and soil with their vehicles. Drilling a natural gas well on land may require clearing and leveling an area around the well site. Well drilling activities produce air pollution and may disturb people, wildlife, and water resources. Laying pipelines that transport natural gas from wells usually requires clearing land to bury the pipe. Natural gas production can also produce large volumes of contaminated water. This water requires proper handling, storage, and treatment so that it does not pollute land and other waters. Natural gas wells and pipelines often have engines to run equipment and compressors, which produce air pollutants and noise.

In areas where natural gas is produced at oil wells but is not economical to transport for sale or contains high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (a toxic gas), it is burned (flared) at well sites. Natural gas flaring produces CO2, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and many other compounds, depending on the chemical composition of the natural gas and on how well the natural gas burns in the flare. However, flaring is safer than releasing natural gas into the air and results in lower overall greenhouse gas emissions because CO2 is not as strong a greenhouse gas as methane.

Natural gas well drilling operation

Natural gas well drilling operation

Source: Bureau of Land Management (public domain)

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Advanced technologies like satellites, global positioning systems, remote sensing devices, and 3-D and 4-D seismic technologies make it possible to discover natural gas reserves while drilling fewer wells.

Advances in drilling and production technologies have positive and negative effects on the environment

New drilling and natural gas recovery technologies significantly reduce the land area that is disturbed to develop oil and gas resources. Horizontal and directional drilling techniques make it possible to produce more natural gas from a single well than in the past, so fewer wells are necessary to develop a natural gas field.

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly called hydrofracking, fracking, or fracing) of shale, sandstone, and carbonate rock formations is opening up large reserves of natural gas that were previously too expensive to develop. Fracking involves pumping liquids under high pressure into a well to fracture the rock, which allows natural gas to escape from the rock. Producing natural gas with this technique has some effects on the environment:

  • The fracturing of wells requires large amounts of water. In some areas of the country, significant use of water for fracking may affect aquatic habitats and the availability of water for other uses.
  • If mismanaged, hydraulic fracturing fluid—which may contain potentially hazardous chemicals—could be released through spills, leaks, faulty well construction, or other exposure pathways. These releases could contaminate surrounding areas.
  • Hydraulic fracturing produces large amounts of wastewater at the surface, which may contain dissolved chemicals and other contaminants that require treatment before disposal or reuse. Because of the quantities of water produced and the complexities inherent in treating some of the wastewater components, proper treatment and disposal of the wastewater is important.
  • According to the U.S. Geological Survey, hydraulic fracturing "...causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and formation waters are returned to the surface. These wastewaters are frequently disposed of by injection into deep wells. The injection of wastewater into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage."
  • Natural gas could be released to the atmosphere during and after well drilling, and the amount of these releases are under investigation.

Natural gas production, transportation, distribution, and storage require strict safety regulations and standards

Because a natural gas leak could cause an explosion, strict government regulations and industry standards are in place to ensure the safe transportation, storage, distribution, and use of natural gas. Because processed natural gas has no odor, natural gas companies add a strong, rotten egg-like smelling substance called mercaptan to natural gas so that people can smell leaks.

1Based on carbon-dioxide equivalents.

Last updated: August 22, 2018