About Natural Gas

Did you know that nationwide, 63 million residences—or about 52 percent of American households—rely on natural gas for their energy needs? Or that over the next two decades, its use is expected to double?

What is this “natural wonder,” and how does it benefit us?

The cleanest-burning fossil fuel, natural gas can heat and cool your home, light your street and dry your clothes—all at the same time. This multi-use energy source is found deep underground, often near coal and oil. The raw form of natural gas that we use for energy is called methane. Other substances found in natural gas, such as butane, propane and ethane, are removed before natural gas reaches our homes and businesses.

How was natural gas created?
Most of the natural gas that we use was formed more than 200 million years ago, from the buried remains of tiny plants and sea animals. Over time, thick layers of mud, sand, silt and rock settled over these remains, pushing them deeper and deeper into the earth’s crust. As the layers of matter built up, pressure and heat from the shifting surface of the earth filled the resulting cracks and crevices with oil and natural gas.

How does natural gas get to my home and workplace?
Click here to view a diagram and explanation of how natural gas reaches consumers like you.

Is natural gas safe?
Yes! Natural gas has a very limited range of flammability. This means that it takes a precise combination of air and natural gas before it can burn. And since natural gas is lighter than air, it usually will safely rise and disperse into the air if allowed to vent freely. To keep consumers safe and informed, the natural gas industry coordinates extensive safety and awareness programs, which are overseen by the state and federal government.

According to the American Gas Association, from 1991 to 2004, natural gas pipeline-related incidents on natural gas distribution pipelines decreased by more than 25 percent, even though the amount of natural gas traveling through the delivery system increased by 30 percent and an additional 650,000 miles of pipeline were added to the system.

While it’s unlikely that a problem will occur, incidents sometimes happen—usually due to lack of knowledge, not because natural gas itself is unsafe. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about natural gas safety, including the proper steps to take if you ever detect a natural gas leak. For more information about natural gas safety, click here.

What gives natural gas its rotten-egg-like odor?
In its purest state, natural gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless. A harmless chemical is added to natural gas to make it smell and easier to detect. Many people describe the odor of this additive as similar to rotten eggs. In concentrated form, the smell of this odorant is almost unbearable, and it only takes a very small amount to give natural gas its telltale odor. Odorants do not affect the potency or effectiveness of natural gas.

If natural gas use keeps increasing, will we ever be in danger of running out?
A common misconception about natural gas is that we are running out. This simply is not true. Scientists and engineers are always searching for new sources of natural gas, including the natural gas being created in the nation’s landfills. This gas, called biogas, is more than half methane, which is the substance we need most for fuel. There are more than 300 landfills being tapped for biogas today, and another 500 will probably be in use sometime soon. To safeguard against a natural gas shortage, local natural gas companies often store natural gas underground to access during high-demand periods, such as cold days.

How does natural gas affect the environment?
Natural gas is the cleanest, most efficient fossil fuel—and a key energy source for reducing pollution and maintaining a healthy environment. When natural gas is used in place of other fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by as much as 50 percent. Increased use of natural gas could also help with other environmental concerns, including smog and acid rain. In addition, power plants often rely on natural gas to meet strict air-quality requirements.

Is natural gas expensive?
On average, natural gas costs much less than other forms of energy, and it is the least expensive method for heating and cooking. The higher efficiency and lower price of natural gas can significantly reduce your annual energy bills.

How does my gas company know how much gas I use?
Before natural gas enters your home or business, it passes through a gas meter (located just outside your home or business). On its face, you’ll find a row of four dials and two additional dials underneath those four. The pointers on the dials record the amount of energy you’re using in hundreds of cubic feet. Your gas company charges you for the “therms” you use, based on the cubic feet your meter records. “Therms” represent the amount of heat that the gas can produce, or its Btu (British thermal unit). To put it simply, the fewer therms that you use each month, the lower your gas bill will be—and vice versa.

Some natural gas companies do not bill by therms but rather by cubic feet (volume) of gas. The chart below shows some of the measurements you may see on your natural gas bill.

One cubic foot (cf) of natural gas is approximately equivalent to 1000 Btu.
1 Ccf = 100 cubic feet = 100,000 Btu = 1 Therm
1 Mcf = 1000 cubic feet = 1,000,000 Btu = 10 Therms = 1 Dth (Decatherm)
1 MMcf = 1,000,000 cubic feet
1 Bcf = 1,000,000,000 cubic feet (Billion cubic feet)