The Combustion Of Natural Gas Environmental Sciences

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Natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, as evidenced in the Environmental Protection Agency's data comparisons in the chart below, which is still current as of 2010. Composed primarily of methane, the main products of the combustion of natural gas are carbon dioxide and water vapor, the same compounds we exhale when we breathe. Coal and oil are composed of much more complex molecules, with a higher carbon ratio and higher nitrogen and sulfur contents. This means that when combusted, coal and oil release higher levels of harmful emissions, including a higher ratio of carbon emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Coal and fuel oil also release ash particles into the environment, substances that do not burn but instead are carried into the atmosphere and contribute to pollution. The combustion of natural gas, on the other hand, releases very small amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, virtually no ash or particulate matter, and lower levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other reactive hydrocarbons.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels - Pounds per Billion Btu of Energy InputPollutantNatural GasOilCoal

Carbon Dioxide




Carbon Monoxide




Nitrogen Oxides




Sulfur Dioxide












Source: EIA - Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere. Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emission of many of these most harmful pollutants.

Pollutants emitted in the United States, particularly from the combustion of fossil fuels, have led to the development of many pressing environmental problems. Natural gas, emitting fewer harmful chemicals into the atmosphere than other fossil fuels, can help to mitigate some of these environmental issues. These issues include:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Smog, Air Quality and Acid Rain

Industrial and Electric Generation Emissions

Pollution from the Transportation Sector - Natural Gas Vehicles

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-2007

Global warming, or the 'greenhouse effect' is an environmental issue that deals with the potential for global climate change due to increased levels of atmospheric 'greenhouse gases'. There are certain gases in our atmosphere that serve to regulate the amount of heat that is kept close to the

earth's surface. Scientists theorize that an increase in these greenhouse gases will translate into increased temperatures around the globe, which would result in many disastrous environmental effects. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts in its 'Fourth Assessment Report'released in 2007 that during the 21st century, global average temperatures are expected to rise by between 2.0 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  A Fifth Assessment Report is expected to be released by the IPCC between 2013 and 2015.

Power Plants Contribute to theEmission of Greenhouse Gases

Source: API

The principle greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, and some engineered chemicals such as cholorofluorocarbons. While most of these gases occur in the atmosphere naturally, levels have been increasing due to the widespread burning of fossil fuels by growing human populations. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has become a primary focus of environmental programs in countries around the world.

One of the principle greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide. Although carbon dioxide does not trap heat as effectively as other greenhouse gases (making it a less potent greenhouse gas), the sheer volume of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is very high, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration in its December 2009 report 'Emissions of Greenhouse Gases' in the United States, 81.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2008 came from energy-related carbon dioxide.

Source: EIA-Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report 2009

Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal.

One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to theEnergy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions.  More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released"Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas", a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation.  The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.

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