What is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a hydrocarbon, which means it is made up of compounds of hydrogen and carbon. The simplest hydrocarbon is methane; it contains one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.
Natural gas can be found by itself or in association with oil. It is both colourless and odourless and is in fact a mixture of hydrocarbons. While mainly methane, the other hydrocarbons include ethane, propane, and butane. Water, oil, sulphur, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other impurities may be mixed with the gas when it comes out of the ground. These impurities are removed before the natural gas is delivered to our homes and businesses.
The fact that natural gas is combustible and burns more cleanly than some other energy sources helps reinforce its position as one of the most highly used energy sources.
Natural gas can be measured in a variety of ways, although the most common unit of measurement is the Gigajoule (GJ), which signifies one billion joules, the metric measure for heat or energy. Other measures are Mcf (thousand cubic feet) and Btu (British Thermal Unit).
Natural gas is a fossil fuel. This means it originates from the remains of plants and animals that lived many millions of years ago. These organisms were buried and exposed to heat as a result of being highly compressed underneath thousands of metres of soil and rock. These forces transformed the once living organisms into natural gas.
Natural gas is found in reservoirs beneath the surface of the earth. Large layers of rock trap the natural gas as it tries to float to the surface. Although the areas where the gas is trapped are referred to as pools, the natural gas molecules are actually held in small holes and cracks throughout the rock formation.
Geologists, using sophisticated technology, help locate potential pools of natural gas, so they know where to drill a well to extract gas. However, due to the complexity of locating natural gas trapped many metres, and sometimes kilometres, below the surface, the exploration process is not always successful.
Once removed from an underground reservoir, the natural gas is usually transferred to a gas processing plant to remove impurities and by-products. Some of these by-products, including ethane, propane, butane, and sulphur, are extracted for other uses. After being processed, the clean natural gas (almost pure methane) is transported through a network of pipelines and delivered to its point of use, including our homes.
We require energy on a constant basis to heat our water, cook our food, warm our homes, and generate our electricity. Natural gas is one of the least expensive forms of energy available to Alberta residential consumers. The most common use for natural gas around the home is for furnaces and hot water tanks. Natural gas can also be used to operate various household appliances, including stoves, clothes dryers, fireplaces, and barbecues. Through the use of natural gas, we can be sure our homes are operating efficiently, safely and economically.
Schools, office buildings, hotels, restaurants and many other commercial enterprises use natural gas. As with residences, these enterprises use the gas mainly for heating, cooling, and cooking. Large commercial enterprises are also beginning to use natural gas for on-site electricity generation as an economical alternative to purchasing electricity off-site.
About 75 per cent of the natural gas consumed in Alberta is used by the industrial sector (including electricity generation). It has numerous uses in the petroleum refining, metal, chemical, plastic, food processing, glass and paper industries. The ingredients for plastic, anti-freeze, fertilizer, and fabric products are formed through the use of natural gas by-products. The fact that natural gas is one of the cleanest, cheapest, and most efficient sources of energy makes it easy to see why it is so commonly used. Alberta continues to be the Canadian leader in an extremely successful and expanding energy sector.
The transportation of natural gas from a gas well to our homes and businesses requires an extensive network of interconnected pipelines, designed to move natural gas quickly and effectively, sometimes over great distances. The pipeline system moves the natural gas from the point of origin to areas of high consumer demand.
There are essentially three main types of transportation pipelines: gathering pipelines, transmission pipelines, and distribution pipelines. Gathering pipelines transport raw natural gas directly from the wellhead to the gas processing plant.
From the gas processing plant, the highly pressurized natural gas is gathered into increasingly larger pipelines, almost always underground, until it reaches the large transmission pipelines where it is often transported over large distances.
From the transmission pipelines, the gas flows into a low-pressure distribution system. As a safety precaution, utility companies add an odorant to the gas (so we can smell it in the unlikely event of a leak) and then send it to us through a network of smaller pipelines.
To complete its long journey, the natural gas must go through a device called a regulator to decrease the pressure even further so it is safe to enter our homes. The gas travels through our metres to measure the amount of gas we consume. Now that it has finished its incredible journey of being extracted, gathered, processed, transported and distributed, the natural gas is finally ready to be put to good use.
Alberta is home to one of the largest natural gas hubs in North America. Through our large networks of pipelines, gas is gathered from inside and outside Alberta. It is then transported through numerous export transmission lines to many high-demand markets. The TransCanada Mainline is Canada’s main inter-provincial pipeline, and one of the world’s longest gas pipelines. This pipeline extends from Alberta’s eastern border to Montreal. (Natural Gas overview brochure)
Major exporting systems connect Alberta with markets across the United States, all the way from California to New England, with Alberta accounting for about 42 per cent of US imports and the rest of Canada accounting for an additional 30 per cent.
Alberta also has a large amount of storage capacity, which aids in the functioning of the Hub. With Alberta’s production capability, its storage capacity, and its export pipeline network, it is easy to see why the Alberta Hub is considered one of the most important natural gas hubs in North America. The importance of the Alberta Hub is reflected in the fact that the Alberta gas-trading price (the AECO “C” spot price) is one of North America’s leading price setting benchmarks.
As consumer demand for natural gas expands, there is increasing discussion about the development of new pipelines from the Northwest Territories, as well as from Alaska. Due to potentially large gas deposits in these two regions, new pipelines would bring even more gas to the Alberta Hub for use in Alberta and for distribution throughout North America.
The amount of natural gas that lies deep in the earth will meet much of our needs for many decades into the foreseeable future. This includes the needs of Albertans, Canadians, and Americans.
Alberta is home to a world-class natural gas resource base, with an estimated 77 Trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of remaining recoverable conventional natural gas. This does not include Alberta’s non-conventional natural gas resource potential.
Alberta’s non-conventional natural gas potential includes coal bed methane (CBM), also known as natural gas in coal. The volume of this natural gas source, which is found in coal seams, is estimated to be about 500 Tcf of gas-in-place. The amount of this resource that could be economically recovered has not yet been determined, but CBM is expected to play an increasingly important role in the development of additional natural gas supply.