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Debate: Natural gas

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Is natural gas a good energy source for the 21st century?

Background and context

Natural gas is believed by many to be a major alternative source of energy. It is a gaseous fossil fuel consisting primarily of methane but including significant quantities of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed prior to use as a consumer fuel — as well as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide. It is found in oil fields (associated) either dissolved or isolated in natural gas fields (non-associated), and in coal beds (as coalbed methane).
It is considered a major alternative source of energy for a variety of reasons: 1. Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline and coal so can help replace these fuels in the fight against global warming, 2. It is abundant and easily extractable, 3. It is transportable so can be a cleaner source of fuel for cars, and 4. it is already fairly developed with strong supporting infrastructures. Natural gas is opposed primarily on the grounds that, while cleaner than other fossil fuels, natural gas still releases a significant quantity of CO2 when burned. In addition, natural gas is Methane - a significant greenhouse gas - and can be released into the atmosphere when drilling or transporting it in pipes or on ships. Natural gas, therefore, is considered a contributor to global warming in terms of the absolute quantity of greenhouse gases that it releases into the atmosphere. This is considered by some to be unacceptable in the context that 0-emission energy alternatives exist, such as wind, solar, hydro, and possibly nuclear. Much of the debate about natural gas, therefore, surrounds comparing natural gas with the available 0-emissions alternatives. Is it unacceptable to develop natural gas when it contributes to the global warming crisis (albeit by less than other fossil fuels)? Does this mean that we should focus on investing in and developing 0-emission alternatives (which do not contribute to global warming in the process of electricity-generation? Are these alternatives ready to be deployed on a massive scale? Are they close? Are they just as close to wide-scale use as natural gas, meaning that we are at a fork in the road? What choice should we make? Should we choose to make natural gas a major component of 21st century plans to combat global warming?

See Wikipedia's natural gas article for more background.

Contents

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Emissions: Is natural gas clean when burned for energy?

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Yes

  • Natural gas can smooth transition to renewable energy Natural gas is seen by many of its supporters as a cleaner alternative to gasoline and coal, but in the context of it acting as a segue fuel onto even cleaner alternatives. The supporters of the Broadwater LNG terminal in Long Island Sound make this case: "Natural gas play a vital role in providing a bridge from traditional fossil fuels to a renewable energy future".


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No

  • Natural gas is a fossil fuel that worsens global warming While natural gas may be "cleaner" than burning other fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline, it is still a "dirty" energy resource, releasing significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. For an equivalent amount of heat energy, burning natural gas produces 70% as much carbon dioxide as burning petroleum and 55% as much as burning coal.[1] Natural gas is, therefore, only marginally cleaner than other fossil fuels. Burning it still contributes significantly to global warming. It should not, therefore, be held out as a solution.
  • Natural gas will lower fossil fuel prices and increase consumption. Natural gas will simply relieve demand pressures on coal and petroleum and, subsequently, decrease prices. This will only make it easier for people to buy and consume oil and coal. Natural gas will not, therefore, replace coal and petroleum. It will only add to the absolute amount of fossil fuels we are burning, and greenhouse gases we are emitting.
  • Methane in natural gas is a major contributor to global warming. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than C02. Methane is very prominent within "natural gas". This is of concern because the drilling and transportation of natural gas will inevitably lead to leaks and large-scale "spills" that will release this highly harmful gas into the atmosphere and contribute substantially to global warming. These risks should not be taken.


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Ecosystems: Does natural gas drilling/extraction/use jeopardize ecosystems?

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Yes

  • Technology minimizes environmental "footprint" of natural gas "Natural Gas - A Fossil Fuel". Energy Information Administration - "Exploring and drilling for natural gas will always have some impact on land and marine habitats. But new technologies have greatly reduced the number and size of areas disturbed by drilling, sometimes called "footprints." 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. Plus, the use of horizontal and directional drilling make it possible for a single well to produce gas from much bigger areas than in the past."


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No

  • Waste from natural gas extraction jeopardizes water resources Mr. Gennaro, chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee responding to the concept of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation by saying, “no” and “no.”...This is an activity that is completely and utterly inconsistent with a drinking water supply. This cannot happen. This would destroy the New York City watershed, and for what? For short-term gains on natural gas?"[2]
  • Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are inherently primitive and destructive to the environment. They involve extracting a fuel source from the ground instead of extracting it from renewable sources. This is unsustainable and should be avoided.


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Economics: Is natural gas economically superior?

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Yes

  • Abundant natural gas helps lower energy prices Chris McGill, managing director of policy analysis for the American Gas Association, said in 2007, "Abundant natural gas resources help to keep energy costs affordable for U.S. consumers--as long as producers are allowed access to those resources".[4]


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No

  • Natural gas is difficult to transport and store. The major difficulty in the use of natural gas is transportation and storage. This is due to its low density. It is generally less efficient and more expensive to transport and store sources of energy that have a low level of latent energy per cubic meter. There is less return on each dollar spent in transporting and storing natural gas. Many existing pipelines in North America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians representing colder areas to speak publicly of potential shortages.
  • LNG and CNG are expensive methods of transporting/storing natural gas. Pipelines cannot be built effectively across oceans. For this reason, it is necessary to transport natural gas by ship. For the above reasons, it is uneconomical to keep gas in its natural state, so the only viable alternatives are to liquify (LNG) or compress (CNG) the gas. This allows more of it to be transported in each voyage. Yet, liquefying and compressing natural gas for transportation, and then de-liquifying or de-compressing it for use, is an inefficient approach. It requires extra technology, process, management, and time that is not required in other alternative sources of energy.


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Safety: Is natural gas safe?

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Yes

  • Natural gas is less flammable and explosive than other fuels Natural gas is a safer fuel than gasoline and diesel fuels. This is related to the fact that it has a limited range of flammability; it requires the correct mixture of air and fuel to burn—somewhere in the 5 to 15 percent range, and an ignition temperature of approximately 1100 degrees F. This compares favorably to gasoline and diesel fuels which both have lower concentrations of flammability and lower temperatures of ignition.[5]
  • Natural gas leaks tend to dissipate, reducing risks. Natural gas is lighter than air, so if there is a leak it will tend to dissipate. Propane is much more risky because it is heavier than air, so pools into explosive pockets.
  • Natural gas has a strong record of safety Natural gas already has a long history of extraction, transport, and use in homes and utilities. In that history, there are very few instances of safety issues, leaks, fires, or explosions. The safety record of the industry is very solid, and should be expected to remain so into the future.
  • Natural gas safety regulations are very strong Natural gas is already heavily regulated in terms of safety. These regulations have worked very well to virtually eliminate all major risks associated with the fuel. Any problems in regards to the safety of natural gas, however, can and should be addressed through further regulation.
  • Natural gas mines have sensors and equipment to improve safety. In mines, where methane seeping from rock formations has no odor, sensors are used, and mining apparatuses have been specifically developed to avoid ignition sources.


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No

  • Odorless natural gas can escape detection risking fire/explosion. Odorless natural gas can escape detection by smell, which means that a house, factory, pipes or other natural gas utilities can release and be filled with natural gas. A spark or flame can, subsequently, cause a major fire or explosion.


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Health: Is using natural gas healthy for humans?

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Yes

  • Natural gas is non-toxic. Natural gas is a non-toxic gas. The presence of the gas in the air does not present any direct toxic risks to humans.
A minute amount of odorant such as t-butyl mercaptan, with a rotting-cabbage-like smell, is added to the otherwise colorless and almost odorless gas, so that leaks can be detected before a fire or explosion occurs. Sometimes a related compound, thiophane is used, with a rotten-egg smell. Adding odorant to natural gas began in the United States after the 1937 New London School explosion. It is substantially improved the detection and safety of natural gas.


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No

  • Natural gas can be harmful and even poisonous to ingest "'Natural' gas may be harmful to your health". AEHA. - "AEHA-NS. and its coalition partners are investivaging the harmful effects of piper natural gas on environmentally induced illness/chemical sensitivity, asthma and allergies as part of the Environmental Assessment of the Sable Island Gas Project proposal....The effects of the transmission and use of piped natural gas upon persons with environmentally induced illness/chemical sensitivity (2), asthma or allergies can be significant and extremely harmful."
  • Odorless natural gas presents greater risk of ingestion. Natural gas is colorless, tasteless, and oderless. Without any added odor, it can escape olfactory detection and be ingested by people.


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Natural gas vehicles: Are natural gas vehicles a good idea?

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Yes

  • Natural gas engines are as efficient as gasoline engines. The energy efficiency of natural gas engines is equivalent to gasoline engines.


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No

  • Natural gas hardly reduces emissions compared to gasoline and diesel. The Wall Street Journal quoted a California Energy Commission: "When natural gas replaces gasoline, greenhouse gases are reduced by just 20 to 30%. When natural gas is used instead of diesel in trucks, greenhouse gases are reduced just 10 to 20%. If diesel is almost comparable, then it makes more sense to fund that as a stop gap as that infrastructure is already in place."[6]
  • NGV's may reduce emissions, but still contribute to global warming Natural gas vehicles run on natural gas, a fossil fuel, so emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, albeit smaller amounts than gasoline-fueled cars (roughly 30% less). If our goal is to aggressively fight global warming, does it make sense to invest in slightly cleaner technologies, or fully 0-emission ones? If we are serious about combating global warming, we should be focusing our energies and investments solely on 0-emission electric vehicles.
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LNG: What are the pros and cons of liquefied natural gas?

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Yes

  • Liquefied natural gas can be a good fuel for vehicles. Vehicles require a fuel that is easily transportable and that is capable of working with existing or modified combustion engines. Liquefied natural gas is capable of this. This is particularly important in the context of the fact that one of the largest contributors to global warming is vehicles. Because LNG is capable of being used in vehicles, while many other "energy" sources are not (or less so), it is a very important "clean" alternative.


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No

  • LNG tankers are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. LNG tankers are massive tankers with multiple large, highly-compressed liquid natural gas tanks on board. When entering a port, a tanker could be attacked by a boat carrying a large bomb, which could set off a massive series of explosions from the natural gas chambers. This could devastate a port city. Such risks should not be taken in the face of 21st century terrorism threats.


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Home-heating: Is natural gas an important source of home-heating?

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Yes

  • Natural gas has very diverse applications in the home. It can be used for heating, cooking, hot water, dryers, backup generator power, and many other applications. The diversity of its uses makes it a highly valuable fuel source that cannot be readily replaced.
  • Gas appliances do not create unhealthy electrical fields in the home. Electrical appliances can create electrical fields that have negative effects on human health. This should be avoided.
  • Natural gas is a better source of heat for cooking. Natural gas stoves are hotter than electrical stoves, so can boil water and cook foods faster and with greater control.


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No

  • Natural gas greenhouse emissions outweigh its utility at home. The number one priority is the fight against global warming. While the utility of natural gas in the home has some importance, it is secondary to the importance of fighting global warming. Replacing natural gas with all-electric utilities in the home upholds the proper arrangement of priorities.
  • Natural gas requires a separate and special plumbing system. Natural gas must have its own plumbing infrastructure in homes, buildings, cars, and gas stations that use it. This infrastructure does not yet really exist. Building and maintaining it would be expensive and would take time; time which, in the context of global warming, we may not have.


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Pro/con sources

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Yes


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No


See also

External links and resources

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