Natural gas: ‘The slow, sure rise of a winner’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Despite the obvious advantages of natural gas, it has had to overcome many obstacles before playing its major role on the international energy scene, writes Alain Beltran in an article for Energies magazine, a publication by French oil company Total.

Before the Second World War, the US began using gas on a large scale and Italy had also already realised the potential of its large resources, the author recalls, and in 1939, the Hydrocarbon Research Centre discovered a modest gas field in south-west France. 

In the 1950s, the decline in the use of coal- and hydroelectric-generating capacity increased, and nuclear power was not yet a competitive energy option. These conditions triggered both the historic rise of oil and natural gas’s entry into the race. At the same time, the world’s proven gas reserves doubled in volume, with discoveries in the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, Algerian Sahara and France. 

Unlike coal, which was used close to where it was mined, natural gas still required specific transport and distribution infrastructure to become a leading energy resource, says Beltran. 

During the 1960s, until the first oil crisis, gas was transported nationally by pipeline. Internationally, liquefied natural gas (LNG) soon became the preferred option and the development of this new technology seemed to be the solution to the technical obstacle hindering the increased use of natural gas. 

French companies played a major role in developing this new technology, the author notes. In 1961, the French built the first large-scale liquefaction plant at Arzew in Algeria before the launch of a new technology, the Teal liquefaction process, which considerably increased the storage capacity for natural gas, with tankers quadrupling in volume. 

Once the transport challenge was overcome,  production rates increased and the US played a major role by driving the demand for natural gas and spurring long-distance transport. In the early 1970s, natural gas accounted for a third of the energy consumed in America. 

Natural gas’s epiphany came during the the first oil crisis, in 1973, the author believes. During this year, around 13% of all natural gas discovered was flared mainly by OPEC countries. Nowadays, natural gas plays a major role in the energy mix and its role continues to grow, the paper concludes. 

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