Zimmerman: What’s in a name? Methane vs. ‘natural’ gas
Gas burners on a stovetop. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

I remember back in the early 90s my father replaced our electric stove with a gas version. It was a big investment for our family, and I remember being proud when my father explained we were doing it because natural gas was better for the environment.

At the time, my grasp of environmentalism meant turning off the lights when I left a room and recycling aluminum cans for spending money. I didn’t know the difference between methane and carbon dioxide, or that something named “natural” could be so bad.

I recognize the irony that nearly three decades later I am advocating for a natural gas ban and a return to electric appliances. But times have changed and, honestly, now we know better.

Attempting to rebrand the writing on the wall

The fossil fuel industry is facing a reckoning, the outcome of which is becoming increasingly clear. But the industry is both smart and well-funded. Rebranding has turned what used to be a byproduct of the oil extraction process into a new “clean” fuel, with claims that it is the bridge between dirty fossil fuels and the clean energy sources of the future.

To be clear, natural gas is the same thing as methane gas, which is 86 times more potent as an agent of global warming than carbon dioxide when considered over a 20-year period.

But using the word natural has biased almost 77% of Americans toward having positive views of natural gas. When the name is changed to the more accurate methane gas or “fossil gas,” the positive association drops precipitously.

Fossil fuel companies know the power of a name, and they are much more strategic than the Trump administration’s humorous and failed attempt to rebrand natural gas as “freedom gas” in 2019.

A recent Guardian article highlighted the work of Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, an organization backed by a handful of energy companies facing increasing public backlash. Natural Allies launched a massive PR campaign that, according to internal documents, “would redefine the role of natural gas in fighting climate change and protect the social license to operate.” Methane gas isn’t accelerating the world’s clean energy future like the PR campaign claims. Instead, it is keeping the fossil fuel industry profitable and relevant while actively slowing down the transition to zero-carbon fuels.

The fossil fuel industry is trying to play us.  We don’t need methane gas as a “bridging fuel.” Stet Sanborn, a design engineer with the Smith Group and a member of San Francisco’s decarbonization task force, noted“All of the all-electric buildings I’ve done have been at cost or lower (than those with gas) because you’re not paying for gas lines to be connected and run all through the building.”

Methane leaves a trail of pollution

Methane gas damages the environment long before it gets to your home. Major natural gas leaks happen every 40 minutes, leaking the equivalent greenhouse gasses of 2.4 million passenger vehicles being driven for a year.

According to a paper by Naomi Wentworth, a sustainability analytics consultant and former researcher at the Scripps Institutute of Oceanography, if 2% of natural gas leaks before being combusted for end use, the climate benefits from the use of natural gas instead of coal are negated. The same paper concluded the average leak rate for natural gas used in California is actually 3.6%.

Once in your home, natural gas presents a danger to the environment and your health. A Stanford study has found natural gas stoves in the U.S. create emissions equal to 500,000 cars. Methane gas also emits nitrogen dioxide, an irritant which reduces lung function and causes airway inflammation. Children in households with gas stoves are 42% more likely to suffer from the symptoms of asthma and have a 24% higher risk of an asthma diagnosis.

Despite what the fossil fuel industry would like us to believe, we don’t need methane gas. Once all the facts are out, we won’t want it. The price is too high in terms of health, wellness and environmental impact, especially when there are safe and more responsible alternatives.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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