Natural Gas: The Fuel of 21st Century

Laxman Kumar Behera

Shift in global energy matrix in favour of hydrocarbons has posed many serious issues including environmental concerns. It is precisely out of the adverse consequences that Natural gas has been accepted as the preferred fuel for the present century. Unlike other fossil fuels it is one of the cleanest, safest, and most useful of all energy sources.

Natural gas is a mixture of hydrocarbons including primarily methane, and lesser amounts of ethane, propane, butanes and pentanes and other compounds like carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen. Though the composition of natural gas is never constant, yet the main component of natural gas is methane (at least 90%). Natural gas is neither corrosive nor toxic, its ignition temperature is high, and it has a very narrow flammability range, making it use a safe option. Natural gas is considered as a clean fuel because of its environmentally friendly properties: (1) commercialized natural gas is practically sulphur free and thus it produces virtually no sulphur dioxide, (2) natural gas emits lower levels of nitrogen oxides than oil or coal and emissions of carbon dioxide are less than those of other fossil fuels.

The most interesting aspect of natural gas is that it can be converted into different forms. The most sought-after form is liquefied natural gas or LNG. When natural gas is cooled to a temperature of approximately -260°F at atmospheric pressure it condenses to a liquid called liquefied natural gas (LNG). One volume of this liquid takes up about 1/600th the volume of natural gas at a stove burner tip, thus making bulk transportation very easy.

The use natural gas as versatile source of energy is becoming increasingly popular world over. It is extensively used from heating homes to cooking food in developed countries. Now a days, many counties are using or contemplating to use this precious gas for commercial and industrial purposes. Due to its environment-friendly features it is preferred to coal and oil for the electricity. Use of natural gas in transportation sector is vigorously pursued in big cities to protect its inhabitants from pollution-caused health hazards.

Like any other fossil fuels natural gas resources are finite but it is plentily available and widely distributed all over the world. With the innovations in exploration and extraction techniques the size of this resource is growing over last many years. It is estimated that a significant amount of natural gas remains to be discovered. According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, proved natural gas reserves stood at 6337.4 trillion cubic feet (TCF). Region wise, West Asian countries and Russian Federation hold 40.6 % and 26.7% respectively. The ratio of proven reserves to production at current levels is 66.7. This represents the time that the remaining reserves would last around 66.7 years if the current level of production is maintained.

The production and consumption of natural gas have consistently increased over the last 30 years. In 2004 the total world production increased by 2.8% and stood at 2691.6 billion cubic meters (BCM). Out of this Russian federation and USA together contributed 42.1%. The consumption of gas has also increased by 3.3% from 251.5 billion cubic feet per day in 2003 to 259.5 billion cubic feet per day in 2004.

Though gas is the next big thing in the hydrocarbon market yet the potential of this gas market has not been tapped significantly. The rationale for the under-exploitation can be attributed to the following facts. First, in many countries especially in developing ones, the market is at the infancy level. Secondly, unlike oil market the gas market is structurally different. It needs huge market, large-scale investment, long-term supply guarantee and international financial security. In addition to these facts, socio-economic-political situations also play a significant role in determining the size of the market.

For natural gas to become a preferred fuel the above factors need to be addressed for the successful transition from coal and oil based market to natural gas market. And the process of transition has already begun. It is note worthy that this transition is not by force but due to the mixture of both force and choice. First, as mentioned above gas is abundantly available and the innovations of technologies have made it competitive with other source of energies. Secondly, the environment-conscious, especially Kyoto-bound countries have the obligation to cut down the pollution level; and they can’t do this at the cost of their polluting industries but by adopting costly technologies or by switching over to the cheap natural gas. Thirdly, overdependence on trouble-torn West Asian countries and the fluctuations in oil prices are taking heavy toll on the energy budget of any country. In this regard, diversification of energy sources and supplies is necessary to hedge against any volatility in the energy market. Here comes the significance of natural gas. As it is traded on a long-term basis and the price is more or less fixed the transition to gas is a better option.

Lastly, the rapid growth of economies, especially of some Asian countries, has compelled them to look for more gas for their existing or future plants. So bound by the above factors natural gas is going to play a dominant role in the near future as coal played in 19th century and oil in 20th century. And it is matter of years that gas will overtake oil as the most preferred fuel of the 21st century.

Author Note
Laxman Kumar Behera, Doctoral Fellow, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi