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Misconceptions about Natural Gas

Mysterious 'Siberian Exploding Hole' (The Siberian Times)

Mysterious ‘Siberian Exploding Hole’ (The Siberian Times)

The media in the last year has been full of scary information about methane hydrates (super bad!) and natural gas (the savior with respect to stopping catastrophic warming of the planet).

Methane hydrates

Lets discuss the ‘bad’ first – methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are white, ice-like solids that consist of methane and water. Methane hydrated can form on the ocean floor or in the arctic tundra. On the ocean floor, methane hydrates are the result of methane gas which is formed by microorganisms that live in the deep sediment layers, slowly converting organic substances to methane. These organic materials are the remains of plankton that lived in the ocean long ago, sank to the ocean floor, and were finally incorporated into the sediments (World Ocean Review). In the tundra, as the tundra plants decay, they release methane, which permeates through porous rocks underground (Tundra Gas). In both circumstances, if the conditions are right – temperatures close to 0 degrees Celsius and pressures of roughly 35-50 atmospheres — ice crystals form that trap the gas in place.

Why the concern over methane hydrates? Because climate scientists are concerned that these methane hydrate deposits might start to melt, releasing methane into the atmosphere (Ruppel, 2011 – Nature), . Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the arch enemy, CO2. Furthermore, there is evidence in the geologic record of a drastic warming phase, which is attributed to the sudden release of methane hydrates around 54-56 million years ago. Of course, ‘drastic’ in geologic terms is a bit misleading – the Eocene warming period and associated ‘sudden’ 5oC rise in temperatures probably took about 200,000 year to manifest – radically quick under a geologic time frame, not quite so quick in human time frame.

So this year, the United States was shocked when methane hydrates were found in a mud volcano off the coast of Califronia. Meanwhile, earlier in the summer, strange craters were found in the Russian tundra, and were later deemed to be the result of methane being released from permafrost. Warming is causing methane hydrates to melt and on occasion, explosively put their methane back into the carbon cycle which will exacerbate the warming cycle (or so the theory goes)!

Natural Gas

So far so good – methane has the potential to warm the planet a whole lot more quickly than CO2. No one is arguing that. So, I ask you, why are the governments of the world rushing, scrambling and madly and wildly throwing out lucrative incentives to develop natural gas? The entire geopolitical dynamics  of the world are even in a state of flux and possibly even in jeopardy as countries position themselves to be the gas supplier of choice – Europe frets that Russia will freeze them out when it cuts off gas supplies and sends them to China (or just because…), America has suddenly become a net exporter of natural gas after years of being one of the biggest importers.

But does the world ‘natural’ in front of ‘gas’ make ‘Natural Gas’ a good thing? Well, what is Natural Gas? According to Wikipedia, Natural Gas is a:

“Fossil fuel formed when layers of buried plants, gases, and animals are exposed to intense heat and pressure over thousands of years, Natural gas is a hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, but commonly includes varying amounts of other higher alkanes and even a lesser percentage of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide.

Yes – it is approximately 75% methane – the very thing that is twenty times more potent than CO2 with respect to greenhouse gases!

Now, I for one don’t think the world is anywhere near ready to relinquish the stranglehold fossil fuels have on satisfying our energy needs, but I do resent the governments of the world on the one hand trying to force high ‘carbon taxes’ on us – and on the other hand, rushing to support the development of Natural Gas. If the goal of carbon taxes and either such schemes is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and thus minimise the ‘threat’ of global warming, then Natural Gas is not the way to go – so don’t sugarcoat it as way to reduce ‘greenhouse gases.’ It isn’t – its another greenhouse gas, and possibly a more potent one than CO2! And if you don’t believe me – the climate scientists are also starting to weigh in with their modelling…

Remember… there are energy alternatives out there that don’t involve any fossil fuels.

About Sally G

Sally is an Earth Scientist with experience in geology and geomorphology. She has always had an interest in general science.