Natural Gas: Good or Grim?

The answer is complicated.
natural gas

Sustainability and residential energy use have an uneasy relationship, to say the least. The former is almost always victimized by the needs of the latter. Solar panels atop the house can improve that relationship, but . . .

Let’s face it. We go about our lives with the technology and collaborative spirit we have in 2023, not the technology and collaborative spirit we might need for life to thrive in the future.

Which brings us to this month’s topic: natural gas. Is it ethically superior to electricity? Are you more of an Earth steward if your stove, water heater and furnace run on gas rather than electricity?

There is no clean answer. Literally, especially when talking about natural gas, a fossil-fuel-derived energy source that before it became a marketable commodity was referred to as merely “gas.” Much discussion about gas is presented in a pros-and-cons format.

For example, MET Group, a large European energy company “with activities in natural gas and power,” recently had these positive things to say about gas:
• It’s less expensive than other fossil fuels.
• It burns cleaner than other fossil fuels.
• It’s reliable in a way that electricity, subject to power outages, is not.
• It has “more efficient storage and transportation compared to renewable energy.”

MET Group admits that producing usable gas is “a long and costly process.”

MET is an example of a “bridge” energy promoter, which acknowledges that gas is not long-term viable but is a great option to tide us over until wind and solar take its place.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in New York, in a November 2021 post titled “Natural Gas 101” countered with, “Natural gas may be a triumph of marketing, but the fact is that gas is a major contributor to air pollution, water pollution and climate change.”

The NRDC stresses that gas is a finite source of energy, one that even the MET Group concedes likely will run dry in about a half-century. Then there’s the pollution angle.

“Gas doesn’t yield as much greenhouse gas as coal or oil does when burned,” the NRDC says, “but that’s not the only way greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere. Before it’s burned, gas leaks at every part of its journey: from the well, during transportation along pipelines, at power plants, and in the homes and businesses where it’s burned. That means that at every step, copious amounts of methane—the second most significant climate pollutant—are released into the air.”

The gas industry also “emits nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds,” which help create “ground-level ozone” that can cause lung ailments. Furthermore, the violent, loud and aesthetically challenged practice of fracking, which in recent decades has surged so much in the United States that we now produce more gas than Russia, among other shortcomings pollutes millions of gallons of freshwater at each fracking site.

“Fracking wastewater can be radioactive, corrosive and toxic to humans and wildlife,” says the NRDC, adding, “at least 29 chemical additives in fracking water have been identified as of particular concern for human health—and more than a dozen are probable or known human carcinogens.”

People residing in low-income areas are most likely to be exposed to such pollution. So there’s an inequity factor.

A truck carrying liquefied gas is, according to the NRDC, “essentially a bomb.” In the unlikely but quite chilling event a convoy of 22 such trucks crashed and exploded, the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bombing would be re-created in a different city and era.

So there’s a catastrophic danger factor, too. For “natural” gas, the cons are giving the pros quite a run for their money.