What is natural gas and how is it processed?

Natural gas is an energy source found underground in sedimentary basins and is colourless and odourless. It primarily consists of methane, with smaller amounts of ethane, propane, butane, pentanes, and other hydrocarbons.

There are three extraction methods of natural gas in Canada, including conventional drilling, horizontal drilling, and hydraulic fracturing. Conventional drilling occurs when wells are drilled vertically down into the earth, directly into underground reservoirs. Conventional horizontal drilling occurs when a flexible drilling pipe is used to drill horizontally into underground reservoirs.

Hydraulic fracturing is when fluid is pumped into a specially designed well with thick-walled stainless-steel casing at high pressure, causing millimetre cracks in the reservoir rock and using manufactured sand to hold the cracks open to flow natural gas. This process is no longer used in Atlantic Canada.

Once the natural gas is extracted, it is brought to the surface through the wells connected to gathering systems that consist of low-pressure pipelines. These gathering systems transport the unprocessed natural gas to processing plants. The natural gas is separated from water, liquid hydrocarbons, and any unwanted gases such as hydrogen sulfide, if present. Once processed, the clean natural gas is ready for distribution to customers.

In Atlantic Canada, natural gas is extracted and processed at McCully Field, near Sussex, New Brunswick. The processing plant at this location is operated by Headwater Exploration. While The lands under operation by Headwater in New Brunswick has a resource estimate of 53 trillion cubic feet, with an average of 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas  produced per year at its McCully Field. Headwater has been producing natural gas since 2007.

Nova Scotia had two offshore natural gas development projects which were decommissioned in 2018. The Sable Offshore Energy Project began in 1999 and produced 2118 billion cubic feet of natural gas over 19 years. In December 2018, the Sable Offshore Energy Project production was permanently shut down. The Deep Panuke Offshore Gas Development Project began in 2013 and produced 147.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas over seven years. In May 2018, The Deep Panuke Offshore Gas Development Project production was permanently shut down.

How is natural gas used today?

In Atlantic Canada, natural gas is used for industrial processes such as cement production, petrochemical refinement, heating, and to generate electricity. It can also be used for residential water and space heating and cooking where natural gas service exists.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel; however, it emits less than other fossil fuel emitters such as coal and home heating oil. In 2019, electricity was generated using 22% natural gas in Nova Scotia, 15% natural gas in New Brunswick, and 0.6% natural gas in Newfoundland and Labrador. Natural gas remains a competitive energy source for commercial and residential heating when compared with electricity, fuel oil, and propane.

What role will natural gas have in Atlantic Canada’s net-zero future?

Natural gas will continue to be an important aspect of the energy sector as Atlantic Canada moves toward a net-zero future. Natural gas will likely be relied on to help generate electricity, especially to help provide reliability and meet demand peaks. Similarly, it will still to be used in many commercial or industrial processes, especially those which are difficult to electrify.

Implementing renewable natural gas (RNG) and/or a 5-20% blend of hydrogen into the natural gas system can decarbonize electricity generation and other natural gas uses. Please visit RNG 101 and Hydrogen 101 to learn more about these energy sources.