climate emergency opinion

Call it “Methane Gas” NOT “Natural Gas”

Words matter. They frame an issue and often convey and influence our feelings on a subject implicitly. The fossil fuel industry is well aware and uses this to its advantage. While there are some verbal creations in fossil energy discourse that are so blatantly ridiculous that they are fortunately ineffective for the most part (see “Clean Coal”), there are others which have turned into true marketing success stories. The most pertinent one is “Natural Gas” – a term that, to be fair, predates the climate change issue and resultant incessant “green washing” by fossil fuel producers.

Natural Gas got its name to distinguish it from manufactured “Town Gas”, a byproduct of the coking process commonly used for lighting and other purposes in 19th century urban centers. The term is said to have been coined by Trish Stewart in 1825, the science editor of the OED at the time.

The term “natural gas” does impart surprisingly positive connotations to both republican (more so) and democratic (less so) voters in the USA, according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Communications.

It seems that in our modern, often artificial, world the term “natural” does indeed have a positive halo effect on a mix of gasses that contain close to 95% methane and are piped to many residences for heating purposes. Methane, of course, being a substantially more potent heat trapping gas compared to CO2 – with a global warming potential (GWP) of about 84x over 20 and 28x over 100 years compared to CO2 (see link table 8.7).

This latter issues matters since methane leaks are endemic across the entire methane supply chain and add to to expected warming potential from the CO2 created by burning the methane gas in our boilers. A fact which the gas industry likes to gloss over when natural gas is often misleadingly sold as a great “bridging technology” or less carbon intense alternative to coal.

The salient graphic from the Yale study is worth exploring but the message is clear to all of us writing on the subject. STOP calling it “Natural Gas”. Instead use “Methane”, or better yet “Methane Gas”. This far more effectively communicates the polluting nature of this resource to American audiences.

It would be interesting to see whether the sentiment connection uncovered by the Yale study still holds in other anglophone countries.

In the German speaking world, the issue of naming does not present itself quite the same way. Due to political reasons that could be deemed crossing the border into corruption by some, Germany, in particular, has an unhealthy affinity to methane gas. Piped methane gas is referred as “Erdgas” – “Earth Gas” here. That said, for the sake of effective communication someone ought to do a similar study to consider whether calling “Erdgas” by its main constituent component, “Methan”, would help shape public sentiment to accurately reflect its true damage potential.

The over all conclusion is that words matter, and we should use them deliberately to support our point. So, retire the term “Natural Gas” from your lexicon today.

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