Natural gas is used for a variety of purposes—from fueling our vehicles to heating our homes. While it is very useful, natural gas is a finite resource, which means it isn’t a sustainable source of fuel or energy over the long term. In addition, the use of natural gas has a detrimental impact on our environment, even though burning natural gas produces less greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. Find out the biggest environmental threats posed by natural gas and what can be done about them.
One of the main threats to the environment posed by natural gas is the threat to water quality. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, oil and gas wells have contaminated nearby groundwater supplies. These wells leak gases and fracking fluids, mainly due to faulty construction or poor maintenance. These wells develop slow leaks over time, causing contaminants to leach into the groundwater.
In addition to groundwater contamination, large bodies of water can also be affected by natural gas pollution. Surface water is at risk due to major and minor oil spills, as well as wastewater leaked from facilities that process, store, and treat natural gas. In addition, more than 1,000 chemical additives are used in hydraulic fracturing—an increasingly common drilling process that involves injecting millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand into fissures in underground shale rock formations to force out natural gas. Improper management of large amounts of these chemicals can result in disastrous spills and leaks into large bodies of water. Couple this with the fact that some processors irresponsibly dispose of the chemicals, and it’s easy to see why natural gas production can be a threat to the environment.
Aside from spills and leaks from natural gas pipelines and improper processing or disposal, fracturing wells use a great deal of fresh water—a precious resource in many arid parts of the world. Moreover, this water cannot be returned to rivers and lakes because it is contaminated during the drilling process.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Natural gas is composed mainly of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. While natural gas is contained in wells, pipelines, and storage tanks, the potential for it to accidentally leak into the atmosphere is high. It’s estimated that these leaks account for nearly 30 percent of all methane gas emissions in the US. Additionally, natural gas that is unprocessed often contains other harmful substances, including the highly toxic hydrogen sulfide.
Drilling for oil often results in the release of natural gas, which may be burned or “flared” if it cannot be transported economically from the well site. Natural gas flares produce large quantities of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and various other harmful substances.
A report issued by environmental consulting firm Subra indicated that roughly 24 toxic chemicals are released into the air by natural gas compression stations, which are located along natural gas pipelines. These chemicals include benzene, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, and several others that have been linked to adverse health effects in humans. These ailments include respiratory disorders, recurrent severe headaches, and even vision disturbances.
Other Unintended Consequences
The US Geological Survey stated that, in addition to the other issues caused by natural gas, small earthquakes are often caused by hydraulic fracturing. These quakes are usually small in scale and do not typically cause damage on the surface, but the long-term effects remain unknown.
Since natural gas leaks may result in explosions, the storage, use, and distribution of natural gas is subject to strict government regulations. Extensive monitoring is required because unprocessed natural gas is odorless, making it nearly impossible to detect a leak. For this reason, companies that process natural gas are required to add a substance called mercaptan to natural gas, so people can detect a leak if there is one.
Companies continue to attempt pipeline expansions across the US, but many communities and grassroots environmental groups have opposed the construction of these pipelines. Recently, a proposed natural gas pipeline expansion through Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island was met with protest from residents in these states. Currently, the proposed $3 billion Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, intended to transport natural gas from Alabama to Florida, is also attracting criticism from similar groups.
While some may argue that protestors are unnecessarily worried, it should be noted that natural gas disasters are a real concern. In September 2016, the Colonial Pipeline running from Texas to New York experienced a spill of 250,000 gallons of natural gas, which occurred in rural Alabama. This is a major pipeline for gas production and distribution for the East Coast, and the spill not only harmed the environment, it also affected supply levels and gas prices for consumers.
While the world remains dependent on natural gas for a variety of purposes, more communities, states, and countries are looking instead to alternative energy sources to fulfill these needs.