Why we're not calling it "natural gas" anymore
The fossil fuel industry's greenwashing of gas threatens a livable future. We want to ensure our readers won't be fooled.
I am old enough to remember when mainstream news outlets regularly framed the reality of climate change as a debate. And I am not very old at all.
It may seem wild to our Zoomer readers, but it’s true: Back in the day, most news outlets weren’t comfortable stating plainly that climate change was real and caused by humans. They would give credence to “both sides” of the issue—on one side, the vast majority of climate scientists; on the other, fossil fuel industry-funded politicians and scientists, usually old white dudes with no experience in climatology. (See the 2014 John Oliver clip below for reference).
That era is thankfully over, for the most part. But false balance is still prevalent in mainstream climate news coverage, albeit in less achingly obvious ways. One of those ways surrounds the “debate” over so-called “natural gas.” Keep an eye out, and I’m sure you’ll come across this framing: On the one hand, climate scientists say gas is a high-polluting fossil fuel that’s worsening the climate crisis. On the other, industry-funded scientists and Republican politicians say it’s “clean energy.”
I see this false debate over gas as one of the most dangerous emerging examples of journalistic false balance. If fossil fuel companies succeed in convincing the public that gas is a clean source of energy, they will be able to effectively neutralize policies intended to prevent a harrowing climate future. In some cases, they have already succeeded on that front, convincing lawmakers in the EU and U.S. to include gas in their definitions of “clean energy.” This does not bode well for the planet.
The fossil fuel industry’s growing campaign to brand gas as “clean energy” is no different from its old campaign to brand climate change as fake. Both were created to dampen public demand for effective climate policy, which would necessitate the phase-out of their highly profitable products.
If news outlets “both sides” the issue of gas like they did climate science, they will once again be falling for an industry-created disinformation campaign designed to profit at the planet’s expense. And this time, there won’t be years to correct for the consequences.
This is why I’ve been considering HEATED’s coverage of so-called “natural gas” lately, and how we can better ensure our readers aren’t fooled by the industry’s greenwashing. In addition to simply calling out that greenwashing where we can, I’ve decided we’re no longer going to refer to gas as “natural.”
Instead, from here on out we’re going to refer to gas as methane—or, more often, methane gas. The main reason for this is that we feel it most accurately describes the fuel—methane gas is primarily made of methane—while also communicating its detrimental impact on the climate. The term “natural gas” doesn’t do either as effectively. After all, most people think things that are called “natural” are good for the environment—and natural gas is objectively not. But most people understand that methane is a powerful, harmful greenhouse gas.
Research backs up our latter point. In 2020, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that public perception of methane gas was strongly affected by the “natural” name. Among both Democrats and Republicans, the phrase “natural gas” or “natural methane gas” evoked positive feelings, and associations to themes like energy, clean, and cooking. Conversely, the phrase “methane” and “methane” gas evoked negative feelings, and associations to themes like greenhouse, global warming, and climate change.
HEATED is a climate change publication. So we’re going to use the word people most associate with climate change. If that makes people feel negative, so be it. Climate change is a negative thing.
We’re admittedly a bit late to making this change. Activist groups have been urging a name change for some time, arguing the term “natural gas” misleads the public about the damage caused by methane. In February of 2022, Rebecca Leber wrote a convincing piece for Vox explaining all the reasons why “it’s important that everyone, especially the media, drop the natural gas label.”
But we’re making the change now, and hope that other publications will follow. Because as we’ve said before: In climate journalism, the stakes are extremely high. We only have so many opportunities to get it right before everything goes wrong.
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The end of natural gas has to start with its name. Vox, Feb 2022.
How the gas industry aims to rebrand as ‘clean’ energy to appeal to Black and Latino voters. Floodlight, June 2022.
Different names for “natural gas” influence public perception of it. Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, September 2021.
Fossil Fuel Executives See a ‘Golden Age’ for Gas, If They Can Brand It as ‘Clean.’ Inside Climate, March 2023.
An update on Tuesday’s story from Arielle: On Tuesday, we reported on a climate justice loophole in the EPA's historic new power plant rule. The loophole leaves at least 61 million people—primarily in low-income communities or communities of color—living within three miles of a fossil fuel plant that won’t be required to reduce its emissions under the rule. The excluded plants are called “peaker plants.”
The EPA did not respond to our request to explain why peaker plants were excluded in time for publication. But they responded yesterday, so we wanted to give you an update.
The EPA didn’t really answer our questions about why these plants are not being regulated, or how the exclusion aligns with the agency’s claim that the rule is a win for environmental justice. What they did say, in part, is this: “We are taking comment on many issues in order to get feedback and make improvements to the rule, as part of the public comment process.”
They added: “With regard to communities with environmental justice concerns, the proposal requires that states, in developing plans for existing sources, undertake meaningful engagement with affected stakeholders, including communities disproportionately burdened by pollution and climate change impacts.” So, essentially: we’re listening, but whether or not we’ll change anything is TBD.
For what it’s worth, we did report in our story that the EPA is in a public comment period, and that they agency’s draft rule says they’re looking for comment on smaller and less frequently-used plants, like peakers. But one thing to note is that the EPA’s latest statement foists the burden of “meaningful engagement” back on the states. It’s good that states will undergo this process; the government should always engage community stakeholders. But it’s not the state’s job to regulate the actual power plants.
Catch of the day: Reader Maggie sent us good boy Roo, a Denver mountain rescue and a certified Snow Addict.
Maggie tells us Roo is dumbfounded that there are people actively working to misinform us about climate change. Don't they know that there will be less snow to roll in if they don't get their act together?
Want to see your furry (or non-furry!) friend in HEATED? It might take a little while, but we WILL get to yours eventually! Just send a picture and some words to firstname.lastname@example.org.