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What Is Natural Gas? Hint: It’s Not Natural

natural gas flare
what is natural gas?
Mossmorran flare. © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Before we investigate Alberta’s natural gas emissions, let’s ask a fundamental question: What is natural gas?

In the most literal sense, natural gas is a mixture of gaseous forms of hydrocarbon — mostly methane, along with smaller quantities of ​​ethane, butane and propane. Previously, I referred to a continuum of hydrocarbons, with oil at the heavy end of this continuum and natural gas at the light end. Methane, which has the chemical formula CH4, is the simplest and lightest molecule in this continuum.

Like crude oil, natural gas results from the decomposition of plants and animals that died millions of years ago and were buried deep under the earth. This decomposition, which occurred under heat and pressure, led to the formation of large pools of gas, which we tap by drilling into the earth. Crude oil and fossil gas often come out of the ground together. 

According to the Canada Energy Fact Book 2022-2023 (PDF icon), Canada as a whole produced about 16.8 billion cubic feet of gas per day in 2021, making it the world’s fifth largest producer of gas. Almost all of this gas came from Alberta and British Columbia.

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What becomes of all this gas? We export the largest share of it — 46 per cent of Canada’s gas in 2021, mostly to the United States. But we also use a lot of it in Alberta oil sand operations, which account for about 25 per cent of total gas demand.

Oil sand operators use this gas to generate steam for in situ oil production. They use it to create hot water in mining operations, where a warm bath helps separate the bitumen from sand. They use it to create steam again in upgrading operations to produce hydrogen used to convert bitumen to synthetic crude. Finally, they use it to cogenerate steam and electricity, selling the surplus electricity back to the Alberta grid.

It boggles the mind when you think about how much energy it takes to make … energy.

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The term natural gas sounds wholesome and benign, but this gas isn’t harmless. Natural gas, which some people call methane gas, natural methane gas, or fossil gas, is a type of petroleum, or hydrocarbon. Like crude oil, it consists of molecules created entirely from carbon and hydrogen.

Methane and ethane are both in gas form when they come from the ground. Other components, such as propane, butane, pentane, hexane and heptane, are often called natural gas liquids. They are liquid under normal production conditions and can be kept in a liquid form with relatively little pressure.

We burn methane to generate electricity or heat our houses. As I mentioned above, we burn a lot of it right here in Alberta to generate electricity, warm water, and process steam for the oil patch.

We convert ethane to ethylene and then polyethylene, which we use to make consumer plastics like plastic bags, cling wrap, and wire insulation.

We burn propane in our camp stoves and barbecues, or use it in industrial cooling applications. We also convert it to propylene and then polypropylene, which we use to make products such as plastic furniture, forks, gears, containers for cleaning products and bleach, textiles, and packaging.

We blend butane with propane or gasoline and burn it. We use it as a petrochemical feedstock, which we turn into synthetic rubber for tires. We also use it as an aerosol propellant, refrigerant, and fuel for cigarette lighters and portable stoves.

In addition to these fractions, natural gas liquids also contain two other important components,  pentane  and pentanes plus, which I mentioned previously. We convert pentane into gasoline or polystyrene. We use pentanes plus to dilute Alberta’s heavy crude and bitumen so they will flow through pipelines. This particular commodity is sometimes called natural gasoline, which is almost funny. We all know there’s nothing natural about gasoline.

Natural gas might be a naturally occurring substance, but there’s nothing natural about what we do with it. When we consider the end uses, it’s clear that we’re talking about an industrial product, one that does great amounts of damage to the biosphere.

Some people believe natural gas is a clean fuel, but it isn’t really. Burning it may not create the same levels of pollution as burning coal, but it is nowhere near “clean” when we consider the full impact it has on our environment. Whether we burn it, vent it, flare it, leak it, or process it into other products, natural gas is a potent source of greenhouse gases and other pollutants at every link in its value chain. That’s why we consider natural gas in this series of posts on Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Want to learn more? Check out my post on the life cycle emissions of Alberta’s so-called natural gas.

Previous Article

How Much CO2 Comes from Alberta Crude Oil? Much More Than You Think

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Pathways to Phase-out

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