Earlier this year, a minor furor erupted in Oregon when it emerged that gas company NW Natural was sending activity booklets to children in local schools containing games, puzzles and cartoons promoting methane gas as a clean, environmentally-friendly fuel. This wasn’t an isolated incident. A similar controversy flared up recently in Massachusetts when the parent of a child in a Cambridge elementary school posted pictures online of similar booklets he’d found in his son’s backpack, including one entitled Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend.
Natural gas — more correctly called methane gas — is not your friend, and it’s certainly no friend to the climate. Growing awareness of those facts among the American public has made the PR push to portray it as such a major priority for the fossil fuel industry. Openly indoctrinating schoolchildren might be a uniquely egregious example, but peruse the FAQs of the websites of gas utilities all across the country and you’ll be left with the strong impression that natural gas is a clean, green, climate-friendly fuel.
Increasingly, that impression is created in part by energy companies’ efforts to redirect the spotlight onto gas’s cuddlier-sounding cousin: Renewable Natural Gas (RNG).
RNG is basically biogas (gas produced by decaying organic matter) that has been upgraded into a pipeline-quality fuel that can be used in place of fossil gas. The biogas used to produce RNG comes from a range of sources, including municipal solid waste landfills, digesters at wastewater treatment plants, livestock manure ponds on large industrial farms, food production facilities and organic waste management operations.
Better than fossil fuels, right? Well, not necessarily.
RNG is chemically no different to conventional methane gas. Burning biogas – the same as burning any other methane – releases CO2, along with other dangerous pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia. On top of all that, it travels through the same distribution pipelines as its fossil equivalent, leaking methane into the atmosphere and bringing the same risk of accidents and explosions.
Biogas as a fuel does have one environmental advantage: by burning it, we prevent methane – an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – from being vented directly into the atmosphere. Environmental groups have often supported, or at least accepted, biogas collection and burning for that reason.
But the amount of biogas available from those sources is extremely small – not nearly enough to provide the benefits these companies claim. The companies touting RNG as evidence of their green credentials are using only tiny amounts of it, and in order for it to become a viable substitute for anything but a small fraction of our current gas use it would be necessary to create massive quantities of additional waste methane for them to capture – which is not only unrealistic, but defeats the object of a “green” fuel, and potentially even incentivizes trash creation and factory farms.
The reality is that energy companies’ push to promote RNG has less to do with moving toward a clean energy system than with locking gas into our energy future and entrenching and expanding existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Pipelines, storage facilities, power plants and so on don’t come cheap, and the promise of being able to repurpose this infrastructure for RNG and other alternative forms of gas provides a handy pretext to allow gas companies to squeeze the most out of their investment.
There may be ways to repurpose existing gas infrastructure for uses that support a transition to clean energy – renewable district heating, for example. But that’s not what’s being proposed here. RNG is not a substitute for fossil gas at scale, and touting its use is nothing more than a fig leaf for continuing to use the same old infrastructure to carry the same old polluting fossil fuels.
It’s one thing for the gas industry to trick small children into thinking of methane as an “invisible friend.” It’s another thing for the industry to con grown adults into believing that a gas system is a friend in decarbonizing the economy just because it uses tiny quantities of RNG. Both are greenwashing, plain and simple. Let’s hope policy-makers and the public see right through it.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
James Horrox is a policy analyst at Frontier Group, based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA and PhD in politics and has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University in his native UK. He has worked as a freelance academic editor for more than a decade, and before joining Frontier Group in 2019 he spent two years as a prospect researcher in the Public Interest Network's LA office. His writing has been published in various media outlets, books, journals and reference works.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.