The urgent need for methane literacy
The climate threat of methane gas expansion is growing, and the public remains largely unaware — in part because of misinformation and misleading terminology.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an important article on the latest, and perhaps greatest, recent threat to U.S. efforts to prevent climate catastrophe: A massive planned expansion of exported liquified methane gas.
In addition to the eight liquified methane gas export terminals that are currently operational in U.S. waters, six more have been approved and are currently under construction; 11 more have been approved and are awaiting construction; four more are currently awaiting federal approval; and three more are in pre-filing application stages.
It’s an unprecedented planned build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and remarkable given that less than a decade ago, the U.S. didn’t have any gas export infrastructure of the sort.
It’s also concerning that this fossil fuel infrastructure expansion is happening amid warnings that ensuring a livable climate requires the exact opposite course of action. According to the Post, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with just one of the proposed projects—called Calcasieu Pass 2 or CP2—would be 20 times as large as those from the controversial Willow Project, which the Biden Administration approved in March.
So why is all this happening? According to the Biden Administration, the answer boils down to national security. As the Post reports:
President Biden has thrown his support behind the [methane gas] industry to help European allies, which in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have sought more U.S. gas to break a years-long reliance on Russian energy supplies.
In addition, according to the methane gas industry, exporting their product to other countries is actually the smartest thing to do for the climate because gas provides “an alternative to dirtier fuels, including coal.”
Advocates opposed to the new methane gas projects “are completely out of touch with reality,” a spokesperson for the CP2 project told the Post, because they “are actually advocating for restricting access to a cleaner form of energy.”
I have not done enough reporting to speak to the legitimacy of the Biden Administration’s national security strategy. (I can dive more into it in a future letter; if you’re a subscriber, let me know if you’re interested in the comments).
But what I can speak to is the brazen illegitimacy of the methane gas industry’s argument; their long-standing campaign to mislead the public about the risks of their product; and the increasingly urgent issue of methane illiteracy. Because the fact is, most people have no idea that this product commonly called “natural gas” is primarily made of one of the world’s most potent, harmful greenhouse gases—much less that it can be just as polluting as coal.
When you brand a product “natural,” people think it’s clean
Throughout this newsletter, I’ve been using the term “methane gas” to describe the product being expanded. The majority of coverage about the expansion, including the Post’s, does not use this term. It uses the term “natural gas.”
I made this style change back in May because I believed not only that “methane gas” was more accurate term, but that the widespread use of “natural gas” may be unintentionally misleading news consumers into believing the product was clean.
A new video from the advocacy group Gas Leaks visualizes the point further. Provided exclusively to HEATED, it shows an interviewer asking random people during Climate Week in New York about term “natural gas,” and various respondents not being aware of its risks to the climate.
The video is not a statistically significant survey, but it does illustrate the point of a statistically significant survey, which found that 77 percent of people find “natural gas” to be at least somewhat favorable, while only 29 percent of people consider “methane gas” to be at least somewhat favorable.
That is a 48 percent change in favorability for two terms that describe the exact same product.
The gas industry is capitalizing on our methane confusion
As Rebecca Leber has aptly pointed out for Vox, the fossil fuel industry did not create the term “natural gas.” But it has capitalized on the inherent positive implication of the “natural” term when marketing methane as a clean, green, climate solution.
In some cases, Leber reported, companies have even abandoned the word “gas” entirely, leaving behind only the “natural” moniker. “In 1997, the gas utility company, Northwest Natural Gas, simply dropped gas from its name to become Northwest Natural,” Leber writes. “The gas industry advocacy group Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future also omits gas from its name.”
While the tactic is repugnant, it’s not surprising. Confusing the public has always been central to the fossil fuel industry’s climate delay strategy. They first sowed confusion about the problem; now they are sowing confusion about the solution.
It’s actually almost comical that, on same day the Post quoted the methane industry spokesperson who argued their product was actually a climate solution, NPR published new documents revealing the gas industry's long history of misleading the public about the respiratory health risks of gas stoves. This is just the same thing, happening over and over.
I’ve explained why the gas industry’s claims to be a climate solution are B.S. before. Instead of re-hashing it all here, I’ll just give you some bullet points.
“Gas has contributed to the largest increase in global fossil CO2 emissions in recent years.” Source: IPCC
Five times more methane is being leaked from oil and gas production than is being reported. Source: Princeton
Methane emissions from the energy sector are 70 percent higher than official figures. Source: International Energy Agency
Methane gas use may affect climate as much as coal does if methane leaks persist. Source: S&P Global
Increasing investments in methane gas carries a long-term risk of delaying the clean energy transition further. Source: Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews
I’m sure some people will regard my call for a renaming of “natural gas” to “methane gas” as an “activist” thing—and in a way I can understand that, because activists have been trying to rebrand the product for quite some time.
But the way I see it, the use of either term is helping one side of the climate fight. If you use “natural gas,” you are helping the fossil fuel industry; if you use “methane gas” or any other term, you’re helping environmentalists. When this happens, it is not journalists’ duty to decide which term will cause less of a fuss. It is their duty to decide which term is more accurate; which better informs the public; and which would potentially have more harmful consequences to keep.
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