Natural gas: Where does it come from, is it bad for climate change? - explainer

What exactly is natural gas? Where does it come from? How bad is it for climate change? What does it smell like and how much does it cost?

 Leviathan natural gas field. (photo credit: COURTESY)
Leviathan natural gas field.
(photo credit: COURTESY)

Natural gas has become a major topic in recent years, arguably even more than other fossil fuels. 

For Israel and other countries in the Middle East, this is partially rooted in the discovery of massive reserves of natural gas

Internationally, natural gas has been the fuel of many important conversations surrounding the Ukraine-Russia War and the global energy crisis it has sparked. In addition, it has also been the subject of environmentalist debates on the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change and is a point of contention discussed at events like COP27.

But what exactly is natural gas? Where does it come from? How bad is it for climate change? What does it smell like and how much does it cost?

Here's everything you should know.

A photo taken overnight by a resident opposite the offshore Leviathan natural gas platform, Feb. 10, 2020 (credit: HOMELAND GUARDS)A photo taken overnight by a resident opposite the offshore Leviathan natural gas platform, Feb. 10, 2020 (credit: HOMELAND GUARDS)

Where does natural gas come from? 

Natural gas, like oil (petroleum) and coal, is a type of fossil fuel. This means it is formed from dead plant or animal remains, hence the term "fossil," which is also why they are known as hydrocarbon fuel.

Specifically, natural gas was formed when animals and plants died, were buried on the ocean floor and got covered in silt and sand continuously for millions of years until the heat and pressure turned them into what they are now.

This specific process is possible because the pressure and heat make the carbon bonds undergo a molecular breakdown, resulting in the creation of the most abundant organic compound on Earth: Methane.

This is not the only way natural gas forms, however. It can also be formed in other places so long as a type of microbe known as methanogens is able to break down decomposing matter into biogenic methane. This can often happen in landfills. However, because these microbes can live inside of animals, even humans, that means they can create methane inside of other organisms. For example, cows are a major source of methane emissions.

However, this type of methane tends to just go into the atmosphere and therefore not only can it not really be used as fuel, but as a greenhouse gas, it also causes severe harm to the planet and contributes to climate change.

By contrast, the kind of natural gas that forms deep underground is what is known as thermogenic methane. These are often found in formations known as sedimentary basins, which are solid rock formations that are too dense for the gas to get through as it rises from underground. These basins are what have to be accessed by drills in order to get the natural gas. 

This can go wrong, though. Supposedly, it was a mistake surrounding the attempted excavation of a natural gas pocket like this in the 1970s that resulted in a massive crater filled with natural gas that is perpetually on fire. This is known as the Gates of Hell, or Shining of the Karakum, and is still in Turkmenistan to this day.

 The Gates of Hell gas fire in Turkmenistan. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) The Gates of Hell gas fire in Turkmenistan. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What are examples of natural gas?

Despite much of the hype surrounding natural gas tending to focus on methane, since it is by far the largest gas inside it, it isn't the only one. 

In fact, there are technically a few main gases that make up natural gas. Some of them are as follows:

  • Methane
  • Butane
  • Ethane
  • Propane

Each of these gases are made up of carbon and hydrogen, though the exact ratios vary. 

Some of their uses are as follows:

  • Methane is often used for fuel, electricity generation, powering ovens, water heaters and even rocket fuel.
  • Butane is often found in blowtorches, stoves and cigarette lighters.
  • Ethane can be used as a refrigerant, but its primary use is for the production of ethylene, which has a number of uses in its own right.
  • Propane is typically used in grills, stoves, buses, water heaters, furnaces and the like.

What does natural gas smell like?

While people commonly associate the smell of rotten eggs with natural gas, that isn't technically true.

Natural gas, in fact, is largely completely odorless, though some have identified a very faint odor in butane. 

However, this can be very difficult in case of leaks, as without an odor, it would be hard to spot. For companies, it could mean the escape of valuable fuel. For others, it could mean the inside of a home was being flooded with natural gas.

As a result, most natural gas companies add in a sulfur compound known as tert-Butylthiol as an odorizer. This gives natural gas its distinct "rotten egg" sulfur aroma.

But if you do smell it, that's probably a bad sign, since it means you're exposed to natural gas in the air around you. This can be very dangerous as natural gas can be flammable, so it is possible to accidentally spark an explosion.

Is natural gas renewable?

Technically yes, but not really in practice.

Like all fossil fuels, natural gas is formed naturally. However, the process takes millions of years, meaning the world's current supply of natural gas is finite and making any more will take an incredibly long time.

 A model of the natural gas pipeline is placed on Russian Rouble banknote and a flag in this illustration taken, March 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO) A model of the natural gas pipeline is placed on Russian Rouble banknote and a flag in this illustration taken, March 23, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

What are natural gas prices?

Natural gas is a commodity and as such, its price is dependent on supply and demand. 

As a result, natural gas prices are often in flux and can vary based on a number of factors. These include accessibility in the market and how commonplace it is, as well as how much is needed.

However, currently, those prices may be in a particularly difficult spot due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is a major supplier of natural gas and supplies much of Europe with its needed energy. Since the invasion has put Russia on the outs with most of the world, it has resulted in prices rising and supply falling

Other countries have natural gas supplies of their own, however, and it remains to be seen what will end up happening next.

Is natural gas bad for climate change?

Natural gas, like all fossil fuels, is extremely damaging to the environment, and this is not just in its use. Extracting and transporting fossil fuels alone cause severe damage from the start. Mining and fracking (hydraulic fracturing of bedrock to facilitate oil and gas extraction) cause degradation to the land as massive swathes of land, such as entire mountaintops, can be blasted away to find coal or oil, and the land does not go back to normal, damaging the local ecosystem and ruining wildlife habitats.

Mining and fracking operations also severely impact the water, with acid runoff, rock dumping and oil spills causing severe damage and pollution to all bodies of water. Fracking in particular is also known to be able to contaminate local drinking water, and the produced wastewater can cause waterways to be polluted with heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The effects these pollutants have can be severely damaging to humans, and studies have shown links to various health issues such as birth defects and cancer.

Mining also causes severe air pollution, which has been linked to many types of cancer, impacting millions worldwide.

Burning fossil fuels is the most damaging, however. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the carbon combines with oxygen in the air. This is because the fossil fuels themselves were formed from once-living lifeforms, which naturally contain carbon, as does all life. Carbon dioxide and methane, as greenhouse gases, heat up the atmosphere and raise global temperatures.

Ways to try and mitigate the damages caused by natural gas and other fossil fuels are a major issue in environmentalist circles and are regularly discussed at important events, such as the ongoing COP27 conference in Egypt. However, the fact that the world does not yet have a ready-made solution to fossil fuels, and with the Russia-Ukraine War potentially shutting off parts of the world to needed energy and raising the emphasis on how important it is, it seems unlikely that fossil fuel use will stop any time soon.