Why is natural gas the fuel of the future? BP Magazine looks at some of the numbers behind the story of the world’s strongest-growing and cleanest fossil fuel
Over the next 20 years, natural gas is expected to catch up with oil and coal and emerge as the main hydrocarbon component of a more sustainable energy mix. The fastest-growing fossil fuel – which is primarily methane – is mainly used for power generation, as well as in homes, offices, shops and other commercial locations for heating and cooling. It’s also a raw material in the production of fertilizer and other chemicals – and it is sometimes used as a fuel for transport as well.
How and where is gas used?
Looking ahead: gas sufficiency
The world’s demand for energy keeps on growing and gas resources are abundant. Therefore, gas has a big role to play in ensuring there is sufficient energy to meet global needs. Over the past decade, the world has consumed around 30 trillion cubic metres of gas – but reserves today are 30 trillion cubic metres more than they were in 2004. In other words, the industry has replaced what was used and then added the same amount again. There are decades’ worth of reserves to support growth and development.
Top 10 countries with largest proved reserves
Natural gas resources include so-called ‘unconventional’ gas, including shale deposits, coal bed seams and ‘tight’ rocks (where the gas is trapped underground in very low permeability rock formations). Most of these resources have not yet become ‘proved’ reserves. The majority of today’s unconventional gas production comes from the US – and future forecasts point to shale gas accounting for a larger share of the bigger ‘gas’ pie: from less than 10% of total gas production today to more than 20% in 2035. According to the US government, the US actually only has the world’s fourth largest shale resources – after China, Argentina and Algeria.
Looking ahead: gas security
The world wants energy security, and gas provides energy that is both accessible and affordable. The challenge comes from connecting gas with the people who need it.
The world’s largest producers and consumers of natural gas in 2013
In the 21st century, a more global market is emerging as gas is travelling further than ever – thanks to pipelines and the growth of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. In its liquefied form, transport by ship – or sometimes road – becomes possible. Natural gas becomes liquid at around -162°C at atmospheric pressure and this liquefied state allows the gas to be shrunk to 1/600th of its original volume. At a liquefaction plant, all heavier hydrocarbons are removed from the natural gas, leaving pure methane. It is then carried by specially-designed LNG carriers, such as BP Shipping’s GEM class vessels that can carry a cargo of 155,000 cubic metres, equivalent to 62 Olympic swimming pools. At its destination, the LNG is re-gasified for use. LNG trade contributes to energy security as it means non-producing nations are not solely reliant on pipelines, but can tap into the emerging global LNG market. BP’s Energy Outlook 2035 forecasts that LNG will overtake piped gas as the dominant form of traded product in two decades. Energy security is also strengthened by diversifying supply. BP is leading new projects in Azerbaijan, Oman and Egypt that will bring more gas to these nations and others.
Shah Deniz gas field, Caspian Sea
New 3,500km southern energy corridor to bring supplies to Southern Europe.
Khazzan reservoirs, Oman
Set to increase the country’s domestic supply by around one third.
West Nile Delta, Egypt
Planned $12 billion investment set to produce equivalent to around 25% of the country’s current production.
Gas-fired power stations also provide a flexible source of power, and therefore can have a role to play in balancing intermittent supplies, such as wind and solar, that are generally local and, in that sense, secure. In this way, gas supports more sustainable sources of power.
Looking ahead: sustainability
Different fuels emit different levels of carbon dioxide when they are burned to create energy. Gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels and typically emits around half as much carbon as coal when used to generate power. The chart below compares the amounts of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of heat content generated.
According to the BP Energy Outlook 2035, replacing just one per cent of the coal currently burned for power would cut carbon emissions as much as increasing renewable power generation by 11%. Policies that encourage lower carbon energy will give gas an increasing role as a cleaner alternative to coal. In its sustainability reporting, BP says: “We believe that putting a price on carbon – one that treats all carbon equally, whether it comes out of a smokestack or a car exhaust – will make energy efficiency more attractive and lower-carbon energy sources more competitive.”