Canada's Energy Mix

Natural Gas

When winter comes, we like to turn up the heat in our homes to stay warm. For many of us, that heating comes from natural gas, which is also used for cooking and generating electricity. But what is natural gas and how is it extracted?

Ervins Strauhmanis, Gas stove flame,, (CC BY 2.0)

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is primarily made up of methane (CH4) but can also contain other hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, butane and pentanes. Natural gas is most often extracted from natural gas fields, buried pockets of natural gas that are sometimes associated with oil fields.

These underground deposits of natural gas formed a long time ago, when the world’s continents looked very different and there were vast ancient seas. Organic materials, such as the remains of plants and animals, would sink to the bottom of the sea and become covered by sediment (i.e., rocks and sand) and compacted. Over the course of millions of years, the organic matter was transformed under high pressure and very hot temperatures, resulting in what we refer to today as fossil fuels—crude oil, natural gas, and coal.

How is it extracted from the ground?

To extract the natural gas, holes are drilled deep into the ground, allowing the natural gas to flow to the surface through the well. It is then processed at large facilities, which remove water and other impurities, and transported via pipeline.

Shale gas is methane that has been trapped in fine-grained sediment (shale) and can be freed using hydraulic fracturing. In this process, water and chemicals are pumped underground with tremendous pressure to crack the shale, releasing the gas. When the gas has been extracted, some of the contaminated water is removed for storage, and some remains in the ground.

What are LNGs and NGLs?

Although similar on the surface, LNGs and NGLs are actually pretty different. LNG stands for liquified natural gas. NGL refers to natural gas liquids, which are sometimes called hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs). 

Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs or NGLs) are produced in natural gas processing plants and crude oil refineries. Although raw natural gas is composed mostly of methane, there are also some heavier hydrocarbons such as ethane and propane. These heavier hydrocarbons are liquified and used in the petrochemical industry for things like space heating, plastic manufacturing, and fuel. HGLs are liquified by cooling and that is why they are sometimes referred to as condensate, because the liquids condense once they hit their specific dew points. HGLs can also be produced by changing the pressure in a well site. 

Liquified natural gas (LNG) on the other hand is created when natural gas is cooled to -162 degrees Celsius. This makes it easier to transport and store. 

Photo courtesy of CAPP: Seven Generations Energy’s Kakwa River Project in Northwest Alberta. (Seven Generations Energy)

How is natural gas transported?

Natural gas is transported by pipelines that run mainly underground (sometimes, pipelines may run above ground, such as in permafrost regions). Liquid pipelines are used for transporting crude oil or natural gas liquids. Refineries convert these liquids into gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products. Natural gas pipelines are used to transport natural gas from wells to processing plants, and then to customers throughout Canada. 

Pipelines are divided according to their purpose: gathering pipelines transport natural gas from wells to processing facilities, then feeder pipelines connect to the long-distance pipelines called transmission lines. The transmission lines transport natural gas to storage facilities or connect to the distribution networks operated by utility companies to deliver natural gas to homes and businesses.

There are more than 840,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada, which vary in size from half an inch to more than a metre in diameter. The federal government regulates about 73,000 kilometres of that network, which includes pipelines that cross provincial borders. Pipelines that stay within a province are regulated by that province’s government. Pipelines are generally considered to be a safer and more efficient way to transport oil and natural gas compared to other transport methods. While oil spills and natural gas leaks do happen with pipelines, they are uncommon. 

Natural gas can also be transported by ship. To be shipped to other countries, natural gas is compressed into liquefied natural gas (LNG). LNG is cheaper to transport because it takes up significantly less space than natural gas—about 1/600th.

Suncor Energy, Natural Gas Rig - Suncor Energy,, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What is natural gas used for?

Natural gas is used for electricity generation, heating and cooking. Electricity is used in our homes and businesses for things like lighting and powering appliances and electronic devices. We live in a world dependent on electricity—from the refrigerator in your kitchen to the computer that you’re using to access this website, electricity is the thing that makes most of our modern-day conveniences possible.

Millions of Canadians rely on natural gas for heating their homes (using a furnace and natural gas fireplaces) and for hot water. For cooking, some households have stovetops that use natural gas burners.

How does natural gas production impact the environment?

Natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil and is seen as an energy resource that could be used to transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy resources. Methane is also more efficient for electricity generation than coal. However, natural gas is composed primarily of methane. Leaks from natural gas pipelines contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. Methane traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for longer.

Natural gas production also water-intensive. Hydraulic fracturing, which is used to extract natural gas from the ground, requires a lot of water and that water is mixed with chemical additives. This water needs to be carefully managed by ensuring that wells are properly constructed and maintained so that they don’t allow fracking fluid to leak and contaminate nearby groundwater. The amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is also a concern because it can put stress on local water resources in an area. This can be partially mitigated by recycling the water used in natural gas extraction.

Where do we find natural gas production in Canada?

Natural gas is produced in several provinces and territories in Canada. The following are the largest producers:

  • Alberta is the largest producer of natural gas in Canada. Alberta also produces more than 80 per cent of hydrocarbon gas liquids.
  • British Columbia is the second-largest natural gas producer in Canada.
  • Saskatchewan is the third-largest natural gas producer in Canada.

In addition, Canada’s only large-scale LNG terminal, Canaport, is located near Saint John, N.B. Canaport is a storage and regasification terminal. It stores the province’s liquified natural gas, as well as importing from Nova Scotia and northeastern United States. 

Did you know?

Natural gas is exported from Canada to the United States via pipeline. The TransCanada Mainline crosses through southern Manitoba and carries natural gas from western Canada to markets in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the United States.