Written by Environment America Clean Energy Intern Emily McCabe
Methane gas is a fossil fuel that pollutes our air and poses public health risks. But you wouldn’t know that from the way the gas industry describes it.
What most people call “natural” gas is actually mostly methane, a short-lived but super potent greenhouse gas. In the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere, methane causes 80 times more global warming damage than carbon dioxide.
When natural gas is extracted from the ground and transported through pipelines, it releases methane into the air which warms the climate. Then, when burned, natural gas releases even more pollutants linked to global warming into our air as carbon dioxide.
Methane is responsible for nearly half of global warming to date. Not only does the use of methane gas threaten to destabilize our planet’s climate system, but burning gas at home can also harm our health. Gas cooking, for example, can produce levels of indoor air pollution that would exceed outdoor standards.
Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t fully aware of the dangers associated with burning methane gas to heat our homes and cook our food. One reason for this is that utility companies have bleached natural gas to make it appear safer and cleaner than it actually is. Here are ten examples of how gas companies use misleading language to advertise gas to consumers.
Some utilities tell their customers that gas is a “clean” fuel. They claim this because burning gas is cleaner than burning coal. This reasoning does not take into account all the ways in which the gas pollutes at each stage of its life cycle. When it comes to global warming, pipeline leaks mean the gas can have a climate impact similar to that of coal in the short term. A new study from the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health has found that the gas we burn in our homes contains many health-damaging air pollutants, and the impacts fracking for gas has had on waterways and our country’s natural landscapes are anything but clean.
Gas companies like Philadelphia Gas Works in Pennsylvania describe gas as “the most sustainable energy choice” because it is the “cleanest” fossil fuel. A truly clean source of energy is one that does not pollute our air at all. Gas companies like this ignore truly clean energy options like solar, wind, and geothermal power.
Utilities work hard to cover up the dangers of gas. For example, Xcel Energy in Colorado describes gas as a “safe” form of energy, when in reality gas is prone to disasters. Methane gas is highly explosive and puts communities at risk. Unfortunately, gas leaks and pipeline incidents happen more often than you might think, resulting in death and injury. In fact, we know that 2,595 gas pipeline incidents have occurred from 2010 to 2021 – and those are just the leaks that have been reported to the federal government. The total number is much higher. Gas addiction puts public health and safety at risk, but Xcel would lead you to believe otherwise.
“Renewable natural gas” (RNG) is what the industry calls biomethane, a climate-warming pollutant. RNG is created by capturing residual methane from landfills, manure and sewage. Although this means it reduces emissions compared to traditional methane gas, when burned, biomethane still emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, just like regular gas. And there’s not even enough to meet our current demand for methane. Yet companies like Nicor Gas in Illinois say “renewable natural gas” is an option that benefits the environment. The sun that powers our solar panels and the wind that spins the turbines are abundant, truly renewable resources.
Net zero gas
To achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, we must stop using fossil fuels for energy. Atmos Energy in Texas, for example, touts its ability to build “zero net energy” homes as “part of the solution to realizing our low-carbon energy future.” The direct combustion of gases in buildings and other fossil fuels in the home is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving a net zero emissions home would require the installation of electric technologies, powered by renewable energy. A true clean energy home would use a mix of electric space and water heating and electrical appliances powered by the sun and wind, resulting in zero emissions.
A New Jersey gas company, PSEG claims that if natural gas is inhaled in small amounts, it is not harmful or toxic to humans. But while it’s true that it’s not harmful in small amounts, that’s not how it is in real life, because cooking with gas without ventilation can produce levels of air pollution inside that would exceed exterior standards. This means that doing something as simple and harmless as cooking a meal can release pollutants into our homes that some studies have shown lead to the development of asthma, especially in children, and can make symptoms worse in children. people with pre-existing respiratory diseases. One report compared the effects of using an unvented gas stove around children to those of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Sources of “organic” gases
Gas companies often use misleading language to conceal the damage their products cause to the environment. Utilities like PG&E in California describe their biomethane as fuel from “non-hazardous” and “organic” sources. These words have positive connotations with consumers that can make them forget the damage caused by the combustion of biomethane. Using this language masks the fact that biomethane is still methane, which often leaks and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned and warms our planet. Using words that mislead customers about supposed environmental benefits is called greenwashing — and PG&E is guilty of it.
Using gas to achieve our climate goals
In the United States, President Joe Biden has set a goal of 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030. Many other states and localities have committed to 100% renewable energy. Gas companies like Washington Gas, which serves Washington, DC and the state of Maryland, say “natural gas is a fundamental fuel that can help us meet our climate goals.” This contradicts a new study from Princeton University which found that for the United States to reach net zero emissions by 2050 (which is necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change), methane production would have to decline. up to 90%. Methane gas cannot continue to be a “staple fuel” if we are to reduce production to this extent, and instead we must focus on powering our homes and buildings with clean electricity.
More efficient than electrification
Advances in electric technologies have made them much more efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts. Electric technologies such as heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and induction cookers are effective options for replacing fossil fuel appliances in the home. Still, the Texas Gas Service website claims the gas excels in efficiency. In fact, electric technologies powered by the sun and wind can be much more efficient than those using natural gas. For example, an electric heat pump produces 3 to 6 times more heat per unit of energy than a gas furnace. A sustainable future lies in electricity generated from renewable energy sources, not fossil fuels.
Methane gas vehicles as a clean means of transport
The gas companies would have you believe that transportation requires burning fossil fuels. In Maryland, Washington Gas markets compressed natural gas as a clean alternative to gasoline and diesel, claiming emissions “dissipate seamlessly into the air.” But compressed natural gas vehicles still emit climate pollution that warms our planet. The company fails to mention even cleaner transportation options, such as electric vehicles. Cars that run on electricity emit zero tailpipe emissions, making them essential for reducing emissions in the transport sector.
Gas propaganda in children’s coloring books
Perhaps the most insidious gas company marketing strategy is targeting children. NW Natural in Portland, Oregon sends free activity brochures to schools that praise the benefits of natural gas. In these books, the company refers to natural gas as a “clean” transportation fuel. What the book doesn’t mention is that there are cleaner forms of transport – for example, electric buses that don’t emit harmful emissions. Gas companies know that children are the next generation of consumers and are trying to influence how children view gas through children’s education. NW Natural is not alone. Evrersource in Massachusetts has provided similar books to schools, and Xcel in Colorado has similar downloadable school materials.
Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change and they deserve to be informed about the impacts of gas when making their energy choices. It’s time the gas companies stopped laundering methane gas.
Image: Wood burning stove, pexels.com (CCO)