“The end of natural gas has to start with its name,” Rebecca Leber, environmental analyst and writer, Vox
Americans feel good about “natural” things. Natural materials. Natural ingredients. Natural cosmetics. If it’s natural, it’s wholesome. It’s what nature intended for us to put next to our skin, to eat, to drink.
(In fact, we have so many positive associations with all things natural that we tend to forget that cancer and dementia are natural processes. And that floods and droughts are natural phenomena.)
So, if you want to market a product, you’re off to a good start if you can call it “natural.”
Take “natural gas.” If your job is promoting the purported virtues, while obfuscating the perils, of this fossil fuel, you’ve got a head start on producing a winning narrative. That’s because it’s been called “natural gas” since the early 18oos when a businessman started bottling it as it leaked naturally from the earth, and selling it as lamp fuel. When it was discovered that it was also good for cooking and heating buildings, gas became, and remains, an energy mainstay, today heating 48% of American homes (62 million).
These developments occurred well before we understood the relationship of methane, the primary component of “natural gas,” to climate change. But recently, recognition of methane’s enormous global warming potential — it is initially 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and is responsible for 30% of global warming to date — and the relative ease of curbing its emissions, compared to tackling carbon dioxide emissions, has brought it to the forefront of climate-change mitigation discussions. (See Want to Slow Global Warming ASAP? Cut methane emissions…)
This relatively recent awareness resulted in a push on the part of many scientists and environmentalists to find ways to quickly cut methane emissions. In response, federal, state and local rules regulating methane output from leaking fossil-fuel infrastructure, landfills and buildings have been enacted in the past three or four years.
This, in turn, has produced hard pushback from the fossil-fuel industry, which has doubled down on its ongoing public relations campaigns to characterize methane as:
(2) “safe to store and transport,” ignoring events such as the 2010 pipeline explosion in residential San Bruno, California, that killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes and shot flames 1,000 feet into the air — and the average of two pipeline explosions in America each year;
(3) “harmless to burn,” despite recent studies that have shown that burning gas indoors can affect people with asthma, heart and lung conditions;
(4) “renewable,” because a tiny portion of it can be captured from landfill leaks
(5) “clean,” compared to burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel;
(6) a “bridge fuel” that can help us transition to a renewable-energy future;
(7) the “fuel of the future,” because alternatives might never be able to meet our needs; and
(8) “natural,” or labeled with fabricated names such as, “freedom gas,” because that sells.
How can we repudiate this nonsense, which is constantly pushed by slick, generously financed marketing campaigns?
First, we can inform ourselves about the facts, and share that information with anyone who will listen — friends, relatives and associates, and, when the opportunity arises, at public hearings or in classrooms. Despite being inundated by media feeds which, for the most part, can be bought by high-bidding fossil-fuel companies, most people still tend to trust what they hear from people they know, and distrust advertising.
Most important, we should break our old habits of speech and remember to always, always call “natural gas” by its more appropriate name, fossil gas. As that term becomes more common, people will associate methane less with the comforting image of mom cooking dinner on the gas range, and more with global warming, fracking and potential health hazards.
Finally, we can change the way we heat our homes and cook our food, a topic we’ll consider in upcoming posts in this series.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.