In the 19th century, natural gas was usually obtained as a by-product of producing oil, since the small, light gas carbon chains came out of solution as the extracted fluids underwent pressure reduction from the reservoir to the surface, similar to uncapping a bottle of soda where the carbon dioxide effervesces. Unwanted natural gas was a disposal problem in the active oil fields. If there was not a market for natural gas near the wellhead it was virtually valueless since it had to be piped to the end user.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, such unwanted gas was usually burned off at oil fields. Today, unwanted gas (or stranded gas without a market) associated with oil extraction often is returned to the reservoir with 'injection' wells while awaiting a possible future market or to repressurize the formation, which can enhance extraction rates from other wells. In regions with a high natural gas demand (such as the US), pipelines are constructed when it is economically feasible to transport gas from a wellsite to an end consumer.
In addition to transporting gas via pipelines for use in power generation, other end uses for natural gas include export as liquefied natural gas (LNG) or conversion of natural gas into other liquid products via gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies. GTL technologies can convert natural gas into liquids products such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. A variety of GTL technologies have been developed, including Fischer-Tropsch (F-T), methanol to gasoline (MTG) and STG+. F-T produces a synthetic crude that can be further refined into finished products, while MTG can produce synthetic gasoline from natural gas. STG+ can produce drop-in gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and aromatic chemicals directly from natural gas via a single-loop process. In 2011, Royal Dutch Shell’s 140,000 barrel per day F-T plant went into operation in Qatar.
Natural gas can be "associated" (found in oil fields), or "non-associated" (isolated in natural gas fields), and is also found in coal beds (as coalbed methane). It sometimes contains a significant amount of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed for commercial use prior to the methane being sold as a consumer fuel or chemical plant feedstock. Non-hydrocarbons such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium (rarely), and hydrogen sulfide must also be removed before the natural gas can be transported.
Natural gas extracted from oil wells is called casinghead gas or associated gas. The natural gas industry is extracting an increasing quantity of gas from challenging resource types: sour gas, tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane.
There is some disagreement on which country has the largest proven gas reserves. Sources that consider that Russia has by far the largest proven reserves include the US CIA (47.6 trillion cubic meters), the US Energy Information Administration (47.8 tcm), and OPEC (48.7 tcm). However, BP credits Russia with only 32.9 tcm, which would place it in second place, slightly behind Iran (33.1 to 33.8 tcm, depending on the source). With Gazprom, Russia is frequently the world's largest natural gas extractor. Major proven resources (in billion cubic meters) are world 187,300 (2013), Iran 33,600 (2013), Russia 32,900 (2013), Qatar 25,100 (2013), Turkmenistan 17,500 (2013) and the United States 8,500 (2013).
It is estimated that there are about 900 trillion cubic meters of "unconventional" gas such as shale gas, of which 180 trillion may be recoverable. In turn, many studies from MIT, Black & Veatch and the DOE predict that natural gas will account for a larger portion of electricity generation and heat in the future.
The world's largest gas field is the offshore South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field, shared between Iran and Qatar. It is estimated to have 51 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates.
Because natural gas is not a pure product, as the reservoir pressure drops when non-associated gas is extracted from a field under supercritical (pressure/temperature) conditions, the higher molecular weight components may partially condense upon isothermic depressurizing—an effect called retrograde condensation. The liquid thus formed may get trapped as the pores of the gas reservoir get depleted. One method to deal with this problem is to re-inject dried gas free of condensate to maintain the underground pressure and to allow re-evaporation and extraction of condensates. More frequently, the liquid condenses at the surface, and one of the tasks of the gas plant is to collect this condensate. The resulting liquid is called natural gas liquid (NGL) and has commercial value.