Natural Gas vs Coal: Do You Know the Differences?


By: John Miller

5 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

We 21st-century humans live high-tech lives, and those many gadgets and tools require power ... and lots of it. As scientists continue to sound the alarm regarding global warming, more and more companies are looking for fuel sources that are cleaner and produces fewer greenhouse gases. In the United States, the coal and gas industries have been fighting to keep (or expand) their profits as our energy needs escalate. In this highly combustible quiz, what do you really know about coal and natural gas? You don't want to smoke around one, and you definitely don't want to wear your white shirt while digging the other, but there's a lot more to it!

Coal and natural gas have a lot of similarities, and their origins are much the same. But getting at these energy sources and then actually using them requires a lot of different technologies, many of which are subject to government oversight and regulation. Do you understand how companies harvest these vital commodities, and how they use them to produce electricity?

From mining to fracking, train transport to thousands of miles of pipelines, these two fuel sources have different consequences for producers and consumers alike. Get your engine running with this coal and natural quiz now!

Which of the following is a fossil fuel?

Both coal and natural gas are types of fossil fuels. Coal is a solid; natural gas is, as the name implies, a vapor, or gas.


Which energy source accounts for about 40% of electricity production?

For many decades, coal has been a staple fuel for electricity production. It's the basis for about 40% of America's electricity.


Since 2008, coal-fired power generation has dropped by what percentage?

Coal is no longer the energy source of choice in many parts of America. Power plants have reduced their coal usage by 25% since 2008.


Which fuel source is generally regarded as "cleaner" and more environmentally friendly?

Coal is often regarded as a rather dirty fuel, one that releases more impurities and byproducts. Natural gas is considered the cleaner of the two.


Which fossil fuel is cheaper for power generation?

It takes a lot of heavy work to mine and transport coal. Natural gas, on the other hand, is much easier to work with, one reason it's also cheaper for the purposes of power generation.


True or false, do more power plants use natural gas instead of coal?

In 2016, natural gas passed coal by … and hasn't looked back. Given current regulations and market trends, gas is the future of power production.


Why have power plants been switching to gas versus coal?

For years, federal emissions standards have been tightening the noose on dirty coal. So power plants have been slowly but surely switching to gas.


Which resource is greatly affected by "fracking"?

Fracking is the process of shooting high-pressure liquids into the ground to force natural gas (or oil) to a place where it can be harvested. Improved fracking efficiency has made gas much cheaper.


How is natural gas transported?

Producers force natural gas through pipelines all over the country. These pipelines occasionally rupture in spectacular (and tragic) fashion.


Which resource is largely deregulated?

Coal is subjected to massive regulation and controlled by huge companies. Natural gas is often deregulated, meaning that smaller companies can take part in the market, often offering better competition and prices.


How do natural gas and coal affect global warming?

Both natural gas and coal, when burned, contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. But gas is cleaner than coal, adding less to the burden of global warming.


Horizontal drilling has made which resource cheaper in recent years?

Engineers have made strides with horizontal drilling technologies in recent years. These drills allow them to get at natural gas deposits that would otherwise be inaccessible.


Which energy source is more dependable in heavy electrical storms and severe weather?

In unruly weather, power lines take a beating, meaning your coal-based electricity may go offline. Natural gas appliances, however, keep right on working (unless there's an earthquake, and that's a different story).


Which resource does California use for much of its electricity generation?

California has long been a leader in clean-energy policies. About one-third of its power comes from gas … and just 4% emerges from coal.


Natural gas fracking has been linked to the deterioration of what?

Fracking uses high-pressure chemicals injected into terra firma. In some cases, it can contanminate drinking water supplies.


Compared with coal, natural gas produces how much less carbon dioxide?

Coal is an awfully dirty fuel source. Gas is much cleaner, emitting half as much carbon dioxide during energy production.


Many oil wells tap into natural gas as they pump oil. What do a lot of those wells do with the gas?

Many oil wells lack the technologies to make use of the natural gas they tap into. So oil producers simply burn it (or "flare") it off rather than deal with it.


Power plants need a lot of which resource to remove impurities from coal?

Power plants that rely on coal also need a lot of water. That water is needed partly to remove coal impurities that would otherwise hamper power production.


Natural gas is mostly made up of what?

Natural gas is primarily methane. Methane is combustible for power generation purposes … but it's also a potent greenhouse gas. So if it's released into the environment, bad things happen.


Which resource leaves a byproduct called ash?

Coal is a rather filthy fuel. And it doesn't just burn away -- it leaves behind ash. And that ash has to be disposed of.


In terms of pollution, one pound of methane is equal to about how many pounds of carbon dioxide?

Leaks are a major downside to natural gas because methane is so hard on the environment. One pound of methane is equal to 23 pounds of carbon dioxide.


Compared with coal, gas-based power production releases how much less sulfur dioxide?

Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas that produces that familiar burnt match smell. And in using natural gas, power companies drop their releases of sulfur dioxide by 99%.


What traps more heat, methane or carbon dioxide?

It's why leaks are such a concern in the energy industry -- methane traps heat 30 times as efficiently has carbon dioxide. That means when natural gas leaks, it's making global warming even worse.


The drilling and transportation of natural gas often results in the release of which substance?

Natural gas is hardly harmless to the environment. It's handling often releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. It can contribute greatly to global warming.


Why are some natural gas pipelines leaky?

Imagine trying to force an invisible vapor through miles and miles of underground pipelines, which obviously have seams. That's a tall order even with modern technologies, and it's a reason natural gas lines are often leaky.


Landfills are a source of which resource?

As human garbage decays, it produces -- you guessed it, methane. It's possible for natural gas companies to tap into landfills in order to fulfill energy needs.


Hydrochloric acid is sometimes used to procure which resource?

Acids, like hydrochloric acid, are often using as part of the hydraulic fracking liquids that force gas to the surface. Add in hundreds of potential other chemicals -- none of which are healthy for humans or wildlife -- and it's easy to see how water supplies can quickly become tainted.


Earthquakes may be a result of our attempts to obtain which resource?

Hydraulic fracking alters subterranean areas. In some places, fracking has been linked to seismic activity, although no one has linked any sort of major earthquakes to natural gas production.


True or false, is natural gas nearly as clean as solar or wind energy?

Wind and solar power are very clean sources of power. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but not nearly as clean as solar or wind.


Which problem may wind up making natural gas less attractive as a replacement for fuels like diesel?

Small gas leaks are a challenge throughout the industry, and they do impact gas's appeal in terms of the environment. And as leaks continue, they may slow gas's adoption in place of fuels like diesel.


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