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How does natural gas work?

7 min read

You may have heard that the U.S. is working toward expanding its portfolio of power plants to be mostly natural gas and solar producing.1 We applaud their efforts to find cleaner, more innovative ways of reducing greenhouse emissions. Though we fully support the integration of solar-based power plants as a means to offset emissions generated by traditional power plants run on fossil fuels, we’re less familiar with natural gas and its impact(s) on the environment.

In this article, we’ll attempt to define natural gas and what it is, identify the most common types of natural gas and their potency, how we use natural gas to produce energy and the effectiveness of natural gas as a renewable resource. We’ll also tell you what you can do to reduce dependence on nonrenewable resources.

What is natural gas?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Natural gas is a fossil energy source that formed deep beneath the Earth's surface.” Natural gas is mostly made up of methane, with some hydrocarbon (a fancy word for water-based) gas liquids, and non-hydrocarbon gas liquids thrown in there for good measure.2

How do we get natural gas?

We’re going to focus on the two significant sources of natural gas: wells and livestock. A weird combination, we know, but none-the-less accurate.

Wells When you were in fourth grade, your teacher should have taught you the formation process of natural gas or oil wells within the Earth. If you recall, the basic idea went something like this:

A super long time ago (we’re talking millions of years ago) there was life on Earth, and like all life, it eventually died (we know that may sound callous, but it is none-the-less true). As crazy as it sounds, natural gas is the result of pressure that has built up on those remains over prolonged periods.

As they died, the remains of the plant and animal life would layer the ground. In would go other ingredients like sand, rocks, and debris (also known as silt), as well as calcium. Over time, the layers of this bizarre mixture would pile up on the Earth’s crust. As the Earth’s layers continued to build on each other, it put pressure on the existing remains/silt combination, causing them to transform into naturally occurring wells of gas and oil.

Think of it like a math problem: remains of dead things + silt + calcium + pressure + time + heat = natural gas.

Livestock Another major emitter of natural gas comes from the meat industry. And yes, I am referring to the literal natural gas that comes from within a body.

Turns out, farm animals burp and fart a whole lot.

All gaseous emissions from animals like cows, sheep, and goats produce little pockets of methane that are released into the atmosphere.

As crazy as it sounds, this makes a huge impact on greenhouse emissions, which we’ll discuss later on. For now, all you need to remember is that natural gas comes primarily from underground wells and living animals.3

How do we use natural gas to produce energy?

In the U.S., the bulk of natural gas is used by a group referred to as the “electric sector” (those that provide and support utility services, specifically for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution). The electric sector primarily uses natural gas to power natural gas power plants.

According to the EIA, “In 2018, the electric power sector accounted for about 35% of total U.S. natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 29% of the U.S. electric power sector's primary energy consumption.”

The bulk of electricity generated by these plants is sold to other, smaller U.S. organizations that deal with electricity.4

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What are the benefits of using natural gas as a renewable resource?

Like most environmental issues, the answer to this question varies based on who you talk to. In general, natural gas is better for the environment because the process of burning natural gas and converting it to electricity results in about half the carbon dioxide emissions in the air than burning something like coal.5

Natural gas is also the best suited to integrate with more renewable-friendly processes, like wind or solar-powered plants.6

It also works towards the goal of eliminating more traditional thermal power plants that can and will continue to produce higher greenhouse emissions over time. So, lots of good effects all around.

What are the problems with using natural gas as a renewable resource?

Regarding the natural wells, the problem has to do with storage and transportation. Regarding livestock, the problem has to do with volume.

The problem with transporting and storing natural gas

Natural gas doesn’t have any long-term visual aspects to it. When it’s released into the air, you can’t see it or touch it, making it hard to contain.

To harness it as a renewable resource, natural gas is pressurized into a liquid form and then moved to a specific location as opposed to the other way around.

So, when a natural gas well is identified, the natural gas has to be removed from the Earth and transported to a specific location. Massive drills are buried deep into the Earth to create an opening to the gas well. Once that’s done, giant pipes are also buried underground, starting from the well, and leading to the location where the gas will be used. The ducts act as a pathway transporting the gas from the well to the source.

Natural gas is relatively volatile, so aside from transporting the gas, the pipes act as a type of safety net to minimize potential gas exposure.

Now, in order to transport it, natural gas must be contained in a high-pressure unit. Only then can it be moved along the pipeline. That’s why compressor stations are placed at specific points along the pipeline. In order to access these stations, governments and organizations have extremely rigorous policies that their employees must follow.7

That being said, the process isn’t perfect, and methane can and does leak at various points in the process.

Even more disconcerting is that the leaked methane has a huge impact on emissions by itself and lasts longer in the air than CO2 alone.8 According to a study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), persistent methane leakage due to the transportation of natural gas has one of the most substantial impacts of greenhouse emissions in our air.9

How large, you may be wondering? Really large, in fact. Methane, as it turns out, and is about 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth, on a 100-year timescale, and more than 80 times more powerful over 20 years.10

The problem with the amount of gas livestock produce

Remember when we talked about gas from livestock? Yeah, that’s a thing, and it turns out that it really hurts the environment. Combined emissions from livestock (specifically cows), generates a huge volume of methane that goes up into our atmosphere.

Remember when we talked about how much more powerful methane is than CO2? As the demand for beef increases, so does the volume of methane gas in the air. Cows; along with other livestock, contribute to roughly forty percent of the methane absorbed by our atmosphere each year.

Yikes. Though science is continuously looking for new and innovative ways to reduce those numbers, the emission of methane via cows is still an ongoing issue that has yet to be officially resolved. Hence the ever-growing market for plant-based food.

What can we do to reduce our dependence on nonrenewable resources like natural gas?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk about it
  • Carpool
  • Ride your bike
  • Take public transportation
  • Work from home
  • Adjust your thermostat
  • Turn off your lights
  • Unplug your chargers
  • Hang your clothes to dry
  • Invest in energy-efficient products
  • Invest in eco-friendly products
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant a garden
  • Compost
  • Get a home energy audit
  • Go solar


  1. “New U.S. power plants expected to be mostly natural gas combined-cycle and solar PV.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today in Energy. March 8, 2019. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  2. “Natural gas explained.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Updated December 6, 2019. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  3. “Methane emissions from cattle are 11% higher than estimated.” The Guardian. September 29, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  4. “Natural gas explained.” Use of natural gas. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Updated July 10, 2019. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  5. “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas.” Union of Concerned Scientists. June 19, 2014. Accessed December 17, 2019.
  6. “New Solar Process Gets More Out of Natural Gas.” Wald, Matthew L. The New York Times. Energy & Environment. April 10, 2013. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  7. “U.S. Department of Transportation Proposes Major Rule for the Safe Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas by Rail Tank Car.” Randon, Lane. United States Department of Transportation. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. October 18, 2019. Updated, October 23, 2019. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  8. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.” Alvareza, Ramón A., Pacalab, Stephen W., Winebrakec, James J., Chameidesd, William L., and Hamburge, Steven P. Environmental Defense Fund. February 13, 2012. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  9. “Greenhouse gas emissions reporting from the petroleum and natural gas industry.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change Division. Washington, DC. 2010. Accessed December 19, 2019.
  10. “Methane, explained.” Borunda, Alejandra. National Geographic. Environment | Reference. January 23, 2019. Accessed December 19, 2019.

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