Is Natural Gas Carbon Footprint Significant?

Many people may refer to natural gas as the cleanest of all fossil fuels we use. Perhaps that’s why it is responsible for producing a significant portion of the world’s electricity. However, it is a fossil fuel, and like all fossil fuels, it has a carbon footprint. So, the question is: how much of a carbon footprint does natural gas have? Is it small enough for us to overlook?

The fact is that natural gas has a carbon footprint that is up there with some of the biggest polluters. The carbon intensity per kWh of power generated from methane or natural gas is 490 grams of carbon dioxide. Sure, this is less CO2 than burning other fossil fuels like oil and coal, but it directly and significantly contributes to climate change.

It is worth considering that per kWh, methane makes up around 34% of North America’s energy consumption. This comes with a wide range of environmental implications. Experts stress that some of these ecological implications are already returning to haunt us.

Defining Natural Gas (methane) and How It Contributes To Greenhouse Gas Emissions Globally

As mentioned earlier, natural gas is often touted as the world’s cleanest fossil fuel. It is flammable and made up of methane (CH4), hydrogen gas, CO2, and water vapor. Burning natural gas mainly produces CO2, water vapor, and nitrogen oxides as byproducts. All of this makes it an ideal fossil fuel for everything from lighting stoves to powering power plants.

Natural gas production is accomplished by drilling into geological formations. Drilling is often done both vertically and horizontally to place wells into reservoirs and to capture natural gas that escapes from rock formations. Water, sand, and special chemicals are often forced into these wells at extreme pressures to help break rock formations and prop them open to extract natural gas.

The natural gas then flows to the surface, where it is collected, processed, and distributed. These processes themselves often leak methane emissions, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a pollutant.

While used primarily for heating and electricity production, natural gas and liquefied natural gas is also used as raw material for producing fertilizers, chemicals, and even hydrogen. It is estimated that the US will consume 30.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2020, which makes up 34% of the country’s total energy consumption.

Why Is It Important For Us To Know Natural Gas’ Carbon Footprint?

Knowing the carbon footprint of fossil fuel, in this case, natural gas, helps us estimate and understand the effect humans have on global climate change. We focus mainly on greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere caused by burning natural gas and similar fossil fuels. However, there are other greenhouse gas emissions that need to be tracked, including chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxides. All of these include byproducts from the oil and gas industry as a whole.

On a personal level, greenhouse gas emissions directly result from driving our cars and using natural gas for heating buildings and cooking food. However, natural gas has a similar impact when used in factories for heating, power generation, and other purposes. In all instances, it results in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Overall Footprint Associated With Burning Natural Gas

As mentioned, natural gas emits around 490 grams of CO2 for every 1 kWh power generated. This is the third highest emissions footprint overall but the lowest individual footprint as compared to other fossil fuels per kWh. Currently, the world is collectively leaking and emitting over 7.62 billion tons of natural gas per year, based on estimates from 2019. This includes emissions from natural gas power plants and compressed natural gas.

From 2010, natural gas use has increased by 80%, with the highest concentration in China, the Middle East, and the US. In fact, the top three countries consuming natural gas are the US, Russia, and Iran. These countries have domestic oil and gas resources and use their own natural gas supplies to fuel natural gas power plants.

While it is assumed that eliminating or minimizing the use of natural gas is the best way to decarbonize the world, natural gas is widely available and the fastest-growing fossil fuel. Natural gas accounts for up to 23 percent of our primary energy demand and makes up 25% of electricity generation.

So, while burning it certainly contributes to climate change, it is not simply a matter of not using energy. The more likely pathway is to switch from a high carbon intensity fuel to lower carbon intensity (“low CI score”) fuel that is more environmentally friendly.

One of the best ways to understand natural gas’ footprint is to examine its life cycle and carbon footprint at each stage. This Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) is a method used to evaluate the environmental impact that various products and materials have on the environment. Many businesses use LCA as a framework to understand and create more sustainable products.

In this case, a total carbon footprint analysis of natural gas would need to take into consideration the footprints of both operations and construction.

Final Word

Natural gas is considered the cleanest of all fossil fuels for burning cleaner than both oil and coal because it releases far less CO2 compared to the two. But while it does not contribute as much air pollution as other hydrocarbons, natural gas is still a major contributor to atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gasses.

Natural gas mainly consists of methane gas, which contributes more to global warming than just CO2. That’s why it is essential to control and reduce the frequency of methane leaks. These facts should be considered when discussing the carbon footprint of natural gas.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel and thus has adverse environmental effects, including multiple pollution impacts on water, air, and human health. All of these issues can be mitigated by not burning natural gas. With time running out to limit the effects of climate change caused by CO2 emissions, it is time to make some very serious decisions.

Methane pyrolysis is an accessible and cost-effective method to reduce CO2 emissions associated with heating and power generation that would normally come from natural gas.