Sunset at Bintulu, Sarawak
Shell opened the world’s first commercial GTL plant in Bintulu, Malaysia

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is a naturally occurring mixture of gases, mainly methane. It is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over millions of years.

Where is it found?

Natural gas is found in rock formations, sometimes on its own and sometimes alongside oil. Some deposits are relatively easy to extract, while others are trapped kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.

How is natural gas produced?

Natural gas is often found in huge reservoirs called sedimentary basins. To gain access to these reservoirs, a hole or well is drilled through the rock to allow the gas to escape and be collected. Natural gas is most commonly extracted by drilling vertically from the Earth’s surface. 

LNG retail station
In its liquefied state, natural gas can be used as a transport fuel, LNG

What is shale gas and tight gas?

Shale gas is natural gas that is trapped within shale formations of rock. The rock is impermeable, meaning liquids cannot pass through, which makes it harder to extract. Tight gas is held in rock pores 20,000 times narrower than a human hair. A special technique, known as hydraulic fracturing, is needed to extract it.

What is fracking?

A technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking is used to break open rock and release natural gas. This involves pumping fluids into the well at high pressure. The fluids are made up of around 99% sand and water, with 1% chemicals added to help the gas flow more freely. Hydraulic fracturing typically takes place a kilometre or more (thousands of feet) below drinking water supplies. Concrete and steel barriers are inserted into the wells to prevent any drilling or fracturing fluids from entering local water supplies.

How is natural gas transported?

Natural gas can be transported by pipeline or ship to where it is needed. By using pipes, gas can be cost effectively transported over long distances as part of an integrated gas transport network. If lined up together, the total length of the world’s natural gas pipelines would stretch to the moon and back eight times. When pipelines cannot cost-effectively reach consumers, natural gas can be cooled to make a liquid, shrinking its volume for shipping to where it is needed.

cars driving around a maze of roads in a city skyline
Natural gas can be used as a fuel for transport, as well for heating, lighting and cooking

What is natural gas used for?

It is one of the few energy sources that can be used across all sectors of the
global economy. It is used to generate electricity, provide heat for essential industrial processes, heat homes and fuel the transport of people and goods.
Shell’s gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology converts natural gas into high-quality liquid products that would otherwise be made from crude oil. These products include transportation fuels, motor oils and the ingredients for everyday necessities like plastics, detergents and cosmetics.

Why can’t we replace natural gas with renewables?

Despite the significant role of renewable energy sources, they cannot provide all the world’s energy needs today. Renewables mainly power electricity, which only meets around 18% of global energy demand. For renewables to have a bigger impact, electricity must play a larger role in other key sectors of the economy.
Natural gas can help to support renewables because it can quickly compensate for dips in solar or wind power supply and rapidly respond to sudden increases in demand. Natural gas is a good partner for hydropower, providing secure electricity supply when there is limited rainfall.

A GTL facility lit up at dusk
Pearl GTL in Qatar is designed to produce up to 140,000 barrels of GTL products each day

Is natural gas safe?

Natural gas is naturally colorless, odorless and tasteless. Some countries require an odor to be added to gas so that, in the unlikely event of a release, the gas can be detected. Pipeline companies take steps to ensure that health, safety, security and environmental concerns are addressed throughout the planning, construction, and operational phases of pipeline operations. They work to prevent releases of gas by evaluating, inspecting and maintaining pipelines.

When gas is cooled for shipment over longer distances, it turns into a clear, colourless and non-toxic liquid. In its liquid state, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is not explosive and cannot burn. LNG tankers are specially designed with double hulls to protect the cargo systems from damage or leaks.

What is the environmental impact of natural gas?

Natural gas is the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon. Natural gas emits between 45% and 55% lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal when used to generate electricity, according to IEA data.  Compared to coal-fired power plants, modern natural gas-fired power plants emit less than one-tenth of the pollutants.

Is methane harmful to the environment?

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When it is released into the atmosphere it has a much higher global warming impact than CO2. Natural gas consists mainly of methane. Efforts to address climate change therefore require the industry to reduce both deliberate and unintended methane emissions from production to the final consumer. It is important that the gas industry continues to monitor and reduce methane emissions. This includes wider implementation of leak detection and repair programmes which use infrared cameras.

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