Natural gas vs. methane: How the name influences our view of this fossil fuel

Natural gas has been touted as an energy source with lower emissions compared to coal and other fossil fuels, but its environmentally friendly image might have more to do with its name than anything else.

While the term “natural gas” goes back to the Industrial Revolution, a recent survey shows it has a measurable effect on how consumers perceive this fossil fuel today.

Natural gas is “a flammable gas occurring naturally underground, consisting chiefly of methane,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s a major energy source in Canada, providing close to half of the energy used in Canadian homes and about one-third of all energy used in the country, according to Statistics Canada.

It’s also increasingly a subject of debate as a way to reduce household emissions, with the United Kingdom proposing a ban on gas boilers in new homes, given the lower-carbon options now available.

While humans have known about a flammable gas in the ground for thousands of years, the first known use of the term “natural gas” didn’t come until 1825, said Trish Stewart, a science editor at the OED.

It was linked to the arrival at the time of another energy innovation: manufactured gas, which was made by combusting coal, oil and other products. By the 1820s, manufactured gas was being made in gasworks near some urban centres, including London and Baltimore, Md., lighting city streets with gas lamps.

That’s also when a village on the shores of Lake Erie, Fredonia, N.Y., was first lit with what an 1828 article called “natural gas lights” from “burning springs” nearby.

Two emerging technologies meant two different terms, said Stewart. “So there’s this distinction between gas that you have to … make out of coal and this gas that comes straight from the ground.”

But “natural” has more than a dozen shades of meaning beyond “not manufactured,” stretching back to middle English, said Stewart. Centuries before any eco-branding, many of these definitions already carried a positive sense of something innate, right or “free from affectation.”  

“There’s that idea that what is natural is somehow superior to perhaps what is made by humans,” she said.

A recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Communications shows how that perception plays out today. They surveyed nearly 2,000 American adults on what they felt and associated with four terms: “natural gas,” “natural methane gas,” “methane” and “methane gas.”

Even though natural gas is 70 to 90 per cent methane, said Karine Lacroix, a Canadian researcher and postdoctoral associate with the program, the responses were starkly different.

Overall, the survey found associations with natural gas were positive, and linked to cooking, heating and notions of clean, eco-friendly energy. Not so for methane.

“The number one answer was cows, and cow farts,” said Lacroix. “That association with cows, it went even further, because quite a few people mentioned global warming when they heard about methane gas.”

Cow farts and burps do release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But fossil fuels, including natural gas, are responsible for nearly as much if not more of the methane in the atmosphere compared to agriculture, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency and NASA.

While survey respondents saw the link between the term methane and greenhouse gas emissions, it was largely missing for natural gas, said Lacroix.

“If we could correct that misperception, perhaps people would think twice about their energy choices,” she said.

Burning natural gas produces lower emissions than other fossil fuels, which is why the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers makes a case that it has a climate advantage, especially compared to coal-fired power — as does a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But there is uncertainty to that advantage when you factor in methane leaks during production. Numerous studies have modelled how burning more natural gas will make it harder to meet climate targets.

“This is a very divisive issue,” said Michael Ross, a political scientist at UCLA who works on climate change and natural resources.

“I think energy analysts were rightly concerned that our dependence on coal would be replaced by a dependence on natural gas, which is a little bit better, but not nearly enough of an improvement to really protect us from catastrophic climate change.

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