Natural Gas: A Misnomer

Natural gas is neither natural, nor is it a single gas. In this post, I describe the origins of these two fictions and how they result in a discursive slight of hand that may have implications for the positioning of natural gas within future low-carbon energy systems.

1. Not Natural?

There is very little that is ‘natural’ about natural gas. At every stage in its journeys  – from speculation to extraction, processing, transport and consumption – its circulation involves the deployment of complexes of knowledges, practices, technologies, regulations and infrastructures. As Bridge (2004) describes;

“[a] whole industry has emerged […] dedicated to corralling the waywardness and variability of gas and rendering it a commodity compliant with the workings of the market”Bridge (2004: 396)

Originally, the supposed ‘naturalness’ of natural gas referred to its formation beneath the ground without need for human intervention. This naming scheme has a heritage: prior to the development of necessary knowledges, infrastructures and market arrangements for commodifying this particular gas, other chemically similar (but still distinct) gases were manufactured for use as energy products. Such systems produced gas from a range of base products (in particular coal and oil) and were pioneered in Britain, France and Germany from the late 1700s. They rapidly became globally commonplace, initially providing commercial, public and domestic lighting services, and later, facilitating cooking and heating practices. Since the late 1800s onwards however, these systems gradually came to be replaced by energy networks that ran on natural gas or LPG[1].

Different so-called ‘manufactured gases’ were produced within these systems. To differentiate between them and their properties, brand names were developed. These typically referred either to the processes of a gas’s manufacture (e.g. coal gas was made from coal, SEGAS referred to a gas manufacturing process developed in the south east of England – South East Gas), or to differences in its systems of transport (e.g. town gas was transported in ‘town gas’ networks, municipal gas was transported within ‘municipal gas’ networks)[2]. Natural gas was similarly distinguished based on its process or manufacture. Unlike other manufactured gases available at the time, this material was formed by the earth, naturally, without need for processes of manufacture.

However, to suggest that natural gas’s realisation as a readily usable energy product occurs without human intervention is misleading. Just as manufactured gases required dedicated manufacturing plant to process raw products, natural gas requires intensive chemical processing before it can be sold as an energy product. Toxins must be removed, water must be taken out, higher-level alkanes must be siphoned off, and if its energy content is too high, extra nitrogen (an inert gas) must be added to it. Rather than the factories or ‘gasworks’ that manufactured previous gases, natural gas systems therefore similarly require ‘reception’ or ‘processing’ terminals to transform the gas from raw material into a commercial resource. In the UK, 7 of these terminals are distributed around its coastline (fig. 1). As such, even the most supposedly ‘natural’ aspect of natural gas’s circulation involves significant degrees of human intervention.

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Figure 1: St Fergus Gas Reception Terminal, Near Aberdeen

This framing is more than just inaccurate. It enacts two particular forms of epistemic violence. First, it obscures the work that goes into commodifying natural gas. The daily functioning of drilling platforms, reception terminals, pipeline systems, compressor stations, engineers, operators and the like, as well as their varied social, economic, and environmental interactions, become hidden behind an image of a supposedly ‘natural’ energy system. Given that some of the most significant sources of carbon emissions associated with natural gas systems relate to the workings and failures of sites such as compressor stations (which require energy to push gas around the country), reception terminals (which flare waste natural gas), and leaking pipe systems (which release methane into the atmosphere), this obfuscation is potentially problematic.

Second, the representation of the ‘naturalness’ of natural gas suggests that gas-based energy systems are clean, green and are compatible with low-carbon transitions. This is currently being actively and systematically mobilised, explicitly through slogans such as the ‘Think Green, Think Clean’ campaign in the header image above, and implicitly, through the use of colours and images frequently associated with cleanliness and environmentalism (fig. 2).

Figure 2: A series of gas company logos making implicit reference to the ‘naturalness’ of natural gas.

This kind of messaging contrasts with the natural gas being a fossil fuel that is both non-renewable and emits carbon when it is burnt (even if these concentrations are lower than other fossil fuels). Methane is over 80 times more insulating than carbon dioxide over the short- to medium-term, and escaping gas therefore also makes significant contributions to climate change. The notion of ‘naturalness’ works to whitewash over this, and indeed, is currently being heavily drawn upon to position natural gas as a ‘clean’ and ‘green’ transition fuel that can help allay concerns for flexibility in decarbonising societies (as illustrated by the quote from Royal Dutch Shell below).

“Natural gas helps provide more and cleaner energy around the world. With the number of people on the planet expected to increase by a billion by 2030, gas is one of the few energy sources that can meet growing demand while reducing emissions from electricity generation, industry, the built environment and transport.”Royal Dutch Shell (2018: 7)

2. Not ‘a’ Gas?

In addition to these issues with natural gas’s supposed naturalness, the term ‘gas’ is also not – strictly speaking – accurate. Natural gas is not a singular gaseous material, but is instead composed of a number of different gases. These can vary significantly in distribution according to the well from which the gas is extracted, the life stage of the well, and the processing practices that are conducted upon the gas. Typically, natural gas’s largest component will be methane, but it can also include higher-value alkanes such as ethane, propane and butane, as well as other gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide and helium. It is consequently a translation of a combination of gases – one that discursively conceals its individual components.

This is significant because these different components can have pronounced social, economic, political and environmental effects. Some are highly toxic (e.g. hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide), some are environmentally harmful (hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide), and some are significantly more energetic than others. The consequences of this latter point are also potentially multiple. Variances in their ratios can influence the amount of energy that is received by consumers. Because customers pay a fixed charge per volumetric ‘unit’ of gas (representing a fixed amount of energy), variations can result either in losses for producers, or for consumers. They can also affect how gas burns within appliances. Customers may experience significant changes in flame size and heat output, but more significantly, the gas may also burn inefficiently, producing carbon monoxide – an odourless, invisible and highly toxic gas that is then released into customers’ homes. It is because of these effects that the precise chemical composition of natural gas is carefully regulated within reception terminals, prior to its entry into the transport network.

This translation potentially works in conjunction with these discourses of ‘naturalness’. By effectively concealing natural gas’s constitutive materials, attention is displaced from the origins and effects of this gaseous mixture, particularly with regards to its effects on global climate. 

3. Reframing?

The terms ‘natural’ and ‘gas’ therefore represent two discursive ‘slights of hand’ that position natural gas in such a way that scrutiny is dangerously detracted from its implications for global climate. This is particularly significant at a time when industry actors are seeking to position natural gas as a low-carbon interim fuel for facilitating decarbonisation. It is in this context that it may be worthwhile considering alternative terminologies and ways of representing natural gas within our writing (for example, by replacing ‘natural gas’ with ‘fossil gases’).

Challenging these representations will likely be difficult however, not only because of resistance from industry actors, but because of their (ironic) naturalisation in public discourse, and because they are also firmly embedded within already established discourses that associate the use of combustible gases with ideas of cleanliness. Indeed, particularly from the 1930s onwards (as the marketing of manufactured gas became increasingly co-ordinated and prolific in response to competition from the electricity industry for providing lighting services), the cleanliness of gas became a major focus of industry marketing in the UK. Gas companies touted gas’s improved cleanliness over coal for cooking and heating purposes, and also strongly promoted its atmospheric cleanliness (fig. 2). Today, similar ideas are again conveyed through the language of cleanliness and images of ‘clean blue flames’ widely used in its marketing.

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Notes

[1] In the UK, this transition is still relatively recent: the conversion of the existing manufactured gas networks to run natural gas from the North Sea occurred between 1967 and 1977.

[2] For a detailed summary, see my post, ‘Energetic Gases: A Glossary’.

References

Bridge, G. (2004) ‘Gas and How to Get It’ Geoforum 35(4) p.395-397

Royal Dutch Shell (2018) ‘Natural Gas: Providing More and Cleaner Energy’ [Online] Available at: https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/natural-gas/providing-more-and-cleaner-energy/_jcr_content/par/toptasks.stream/1521824901690/c0ad682c376d229c734abfb96735f0dc1daee491/natural-gas-book-interactive-spreads-032018.pdf [Accessed 27/1/20]

Published by peterjamesforman

Peter Forman is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University. His work covers contemporary energy politics, political ecology and materialisms.

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