How does natural gas drilling work?

By: Jamie Page Deaton  | 
A natural gas extraction site
How much do you know about natural gas?
Keith Wood/Corbis

When you switch on your furnace or turn on your gas stove and use the heat from that little blue flame, you’re doing what people in 62 million American homes do every day: You're using natural gas. While natural gas is one way we can heat homes, like all sources of energy, it has to come from somewhere. So, how is natural gas extracted?


Natural Gas Extraction Starts With Natural Gas Deposits

Like all forms of energy drilling, natural gas drilling starts when a natural gas deposit is found deep beneath the Earth’s surface. To find these deposits, energy company scientists use a variety of methods. They look at the surface geology of an area, the seismic energy (how energy moves from inside the Earth to its surface) and even the magnetic properties of the underground rock formations. Once a likely deposit of natural gas is located, the energy company then drills down to reach it.


Breaking Up an Impermeable Rock Formation

Of course, getting gas out of the Earth isn’t easy. A natural gas well isn’t at all like a water well (where you drill a hole in the ground and water fills it). Natural gas tends to be contained within the underground rock itself. The rock must be broken to release the gas. And if it’s brought out the wrong way, it can contaminate the groundwater supply surrounding it. To get the most gas possible, after drilling a hole, energy companies line the hole with materials meant to keep the gas in. Next, they send electric charges down the well, which affect the rock around it.


The Role of Hydraulic Fracturing

After the charges are set off, a highly pressurized liquid fracking solution is sent down the well. This solution breaks up the rocks, releasing the natural gas. Since the gas is lighter than the fracking solution, it rises to the top of the well for capture.

While this sounds easy enough, there are still some controversies surrounding natural gas drilling. Some people argue that it releases dangerous chemicals into the groundwater and can contaminate drinking water and agricultural water. Also, once the fracking solution has been used, it’s filled with toxic chemicals. Sometimes it can be recycled for other fracking operations.


Now, the next time you relax in a toasty warm house heated by natural gas, you’ll know where it comes from.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Answered Questions

How does conventional natural gas differ from unconventional natural gas?
Conventional natural gas is extracted from well-defined natural gas reservoirs in relatively porous rock. Unconventional natural gas like shale gas requires advanced extraction techniques, including horizontal drilling.
Why is shale gas considered an unconventional gas?
It's considered an unconventional gas because it requires advanced techniques for extraction.
How are drilling operations conducted to extract natural gas?
While vertical drilling was once more common for natural gas extraction, horizontal drilling has become more popular because it can increase the amount of natural gas extracted.
What role does carbon dioxide play in natural gas production?
Carbon dioxide is sometimes found in natural gas reservoirs and must be separated from the pure natural gas before it's sold. Burning natural gas emits carbon dioxide, though less than burning other fossil fuels like coal and oil.