Ask Eartha: What is bad about natural gas?
Dear Eartha, I hear people talking about reducing natural gas use, but I don’t understand why. If it’s “natural,” doesn’t that mean it’s good?
What comes to mind when you think of the word “natural”? Maybe crisp mountain streams, fresh air and clear skies? Certainly not air and water pollution or poor, indoor air quality. And that’s exactly the point. By labeling gas extracted from the Earth “natural gas,” the fossil fuel industry is engaging in an unfortunately common practice known as greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a sneaky marketing strategy that employs words like “green,” “eco-friendly” or — you guessed it — “natural” to make consumers think a product is cleaner or safer than it actually is. Use of these terms isn’t regulated, and there’s often no evidence presented to support these environmental claims. After all, the dictionary definition of “natural” is anything that comes from the earth — that is, things that aren’t human-made. In this sense, we could call all fossil fuels natural.
The dirty truth
The American Gas Association touts natural gas as the “earth’s cleanest fossil fuel.” In a way that’s true. When burned to generate electricity or heat, natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels like coal or oil. But that doesn’t make it clean or good for the environment. The primary component of natural gas is methane. And methane is — surprise, surprise — a greenhouse gas. Methane hasn’t gotten as much attention as carbon dioxide because it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere. But it traps a lot more heat. Over a 20-year period, it’s 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Scientists now estimate that methane has caused a quarter of the climate warming the world has experienced.
Because gas emits fewer emissions when combusted, it’s been celebrated as a “bridge” fuel — a source of energy that we can use as we transition to a more renewable future. In the past decade, over 500 coal-fired power plants across the U.S. have closed, largely to be replaced by natural gas plants. While this has helped to decrease emissions (although the impact of leaks may be underestimated), methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are on the rise. Venting and flaring — the intentional release of excess gas — increased by 66% in 2018.
From natural gas to methane gas
The gas industry’s greenwashing of natural gas worked. A 2021 poll conducted by Climate Nexus, a climate communications organization, found that 77% of U.S. registered voters surveyed had a positive view of natural gas. But when asked about methane, those rosy views dropped considerably to just 29%.
The bottom line is that natural gas is a fossil fuel. Like all fossil fuels, burning it is bad not just for the planet’s health, but also human health. So to help us better understand the connection between gas, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, communications experts suggest that we change the name and start calling gas what it really is: fossil gas or methane gas.
This rebranding will be competing with the gas industry’s attempts maintain methane gas’ favorable view among the American public. Now gas companies are throwing around terms like “responsibly sourced” and “renewable natural gas.”
Is there such a thing as renewable natural gas? It’s a bit of a stretch. When the industry talks about renewable natural gas, it’s referring to methane harnessed from organic waste at landfills, farms and wastewater treatment plants. I suppose poop is a renewable resource — we all have to eat, after all — but there’s sadly not enough of it to replace traditional methane gas.
So, what’s a responsible consumer to do? Now that utility-scale renewables are the cheapest form of electricity generation, the solution is to electrify everything. Electric heating systems are becoming more and more efficient, giving gas a run for its money. Induction cooktops are increasingly popular, too. You may not be ready to replace your boiler or stove, but researching heat pumps and induction cooking now means you’ll be prepared once it is time to upgrade your appliances. In the meantime, you can simply use less gas. Start by getting a home energy assessment to figure out how your home can maximize energy and water efficiency. And get ready for a future when we all kick gas.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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