Greenwashing methane gas: Seeing a fossil fuel’s true colors

Millions of Americans rely on the energy produced by natural gas to turn the lights on, cook their food and heat their homes. But many do not understand the full scale of the environmental and human costs that come with it, or the lengths energy companies go to to hide those costs.

Amelia Lake


Energy is critical. Without it, lights won’t turn on, food won’t be cooked, and homes won’t stay warm in the winter. The United States is among the most energy-hungry countries in the world: despite making up only 4% of the global population, it accounts for almost 20% of the world’s energy consumption.

Our demands come at a high environmental price. In 2019, American energy consumption released an estimated 5,130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the process of mining, transporting and burning fossil fuels causes harm ranging from habitat destruction to health-threatening air pollution. Naturally, any efforts to address climate change must also tackle the issue of energy, by finding ways to reduce our consumption and offering more sustainable means of meeting our remaining demand.

On a surface level, methane gas (often referred to as “natural gas”) might seem like a good stopgap measure until we can make a complete switch to renewables. It is abundant enough that current consumption levels could be sustained for another 230 years, and burning it emits 50% less carbon dioxide than coal. Sounds simple enough … right?

Unfortunately, not quite.

First of all, methane gas is the product of decomposed organic matter, meaning that it is a fossil fuel and a nonrenewable source of energy. A potent greenhouse gas that is responsible for as much as half of global warming to date, methane can make its way into the atmosphere when it is released during fossil fuel extraction or when it leaks through faulty pipes. It is shorter-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but over 80 times more powerful at trapping heat. While methane is naturally emitted from geological sources, such as volcanoes and wetlands, atmospheric levels have more than doubled since the Industrial Revolution and have spiked sharply since 2007, inciting concern from scientists about climate implications. If that’s not enough to raise alarm bells, new research suggests that we are severely underestimating the amount of methane released by fossil fuel extraction.

Methane gas isn’t just bad for the environment – it’s dangerous to us. Chillingly, as Frontier Group describes in our recent report, Methane Gas Leaks, a gas pipeline incident occurs somewhere in the U.S. every 40 hours, meaning that over the course of a typical year, over 200 pipeline incidents will take place in America. The consequences are often tragic. Since 2010, explosions and fires caused by gas leaks have killed 122 people and injured 603, while causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Survivors are left to struggle with debilitating injuries, medical bills, and long roads to recovery.

None of this has stopped energy companies from touting gas as “environmentally responsible,” even “the most … sustainable energy option.” These greenwashing campaigns target our desire to make environmentally-friendly choices, portraying gas as cleaner than it really is and suggesting that it will play an important role in helping us achieve net-zero emissions. For the most part, they’ve been successful. A Pew Research Center survey suggests that roughly 70% of adults support expanding natural gas development and use; even the European Parliament considers gas projects “green” and “sustainable.”

Advocates for public health and the environment are challenging industry efforts to define methane gas as “green” in the public mind. Earlier this month, U.S. PIRG announced a lawsuit against Washington Gas, the gas utility for the nation’s capital, accusing the company of misleading its more than one million customers about the environmental impacts of methane gas. In doing so, U.S. PIRG alleges that Washington Gas violated the District of Columbia’s consumer protection laws. While the legal system may be slow to act, publicity generated by lawsuits and educational efforts can be an important part of helping the public to understand the full impacts of methane gas on our health and environment.

Today, methane gas is the second-most consumed source of energy in the United States, accounting for nearly a third of all energy used in the country. And while soaring prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have cast doubt on the future growth of gas, global demand is expected to increase by a total of 5.1 quadrillion Btu by 2025. This is not a sustainable trajectory, but with unprecedented growth in renewables and the right policy decisions, it is one we can avoid. Fighting climate change demands that we find sustainable energy solutions, and soon. One thing is for sure: methane gas isn’t one of them.

Image: Ivan Radic via Flickr, CC BY 2.0


Amelia Lake


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