Green Building, Sustainability, Water Management

It’s Time to Rebrand: ‘Natural Gas’ just Ain’t Natural Anymore

I don’t know who came up with the name Natural Gas, but from a PR perspective, the branding team knocked it out of the park.

To me, the words ‘oil’ and ‘coal’ conjure thoughts of dirty, smelly and polluting things: grizzled blue-collar guys torquing huge wrenches while black gooey muck sloshes out of the ground. It’s billowing smoke stacks on the edge of a city, or even those lumps in your Christmas stocking for bad behavior.

But lucky for gas, it somehow scored that friendly descriptive word ‘natural.’ This makes it way easier to sell as our environment-saving fuel of the future, spelled out in bright green letters with a little leaf growing out the top. It sounds less like a fossil fuel and more like something in an aisle at Whole Foods.

It feels like cozy gas fireplaces and high-end stovetops. And it sure doesn’t hurt that it’s freakin’ cheap.

Honestly I feel kind of bad for oil, coal, uranium- they’re all natural. In fact oil, coal and gas are all fossil fuels formed over millions of years from dead plants and animals. How much better would it sound if your town’s electricity came from a natural coal, or a natural uranium power plant?

My guess is someone decided it’d be smart to differentiate between gas and gasoline, which us North Americans shorten to ‘gas.’ (on a side note, who’s idea was that? How about calling it petrol like the rest of the world?)

Whatever the reason, it’s a problem because it creates a false sense of warm fuzziness that we’re using this clean-burning, odorless, colorless gas that is deemed natural. Environment = saved, conscious = happy.

But Natural Gas is becoming less and less ‘natural’

C’mon guys, you have to admit it’s pretty cheeky to still call it natural, considering the way we extract the stuff requires more and more human intervention. Where I live, British Columbia, more than 60% of the gas we use comes from hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

These ‘unconventional’ extraction methods involve getting gas out that’s stuck in non-porous or tight rock formations, using drilling and fracturing. This colorful chart from the Energy Information Association in the US clearly shows where things are headed.

I’m surprised they picked black for shale gas. Looks like this ominous growing cloud of doom.

Clearly the stuff heating your house is coming from ever-increasingly invasive actions. Not to mention these actions also lead to insane amounts of water use, water contamination, service road construction, pipelines, and have even caused earthquakes!

In the small town of Fox Creek, Alberta, some hydraulic fracturing operations have been shut down due to causing serious seismic activity. Crazy.

It’s cleaner than coal, but it’s still the best of the worst

A piece by Mark Bittman in the New York Times sums it up perfectly: “One reason natural gas is called “clean” is because it emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when you burn it. Thus it’s seen by some as a “bridge” fuel until zero-carbon-producing renewables can take over. But natural gas isn’t clean in the way that solar is clean. It’s clean-er than coal. It’s better than the worst; that’s all.”

And unlike other fuels, it has the unique problem that it’s also damaging by not being burned. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, something around 70 times stronger than CO2 when released. All this fracturing, drilling, and transporting means lots of this gas gets lost along the way, and heads up to the sky.

So to say that it’s a clean energy, you’d better be burning it all. Because from a climate perspective, even if as little as 3 percent of the methane produced escapes, you might as well be burning coal (study here).

So I propose a grand rebranding!

If we’re going to push past natural gas as our temporary energy savior, we’ve got to update that adjective to better reflect what it really is. Therefore I formally request a change to of the following:

– Fracked Gas
– Shale Gas
– Fossil Gas
– Methane Gas

Mmm doesn’t that sound so much less appealing? “Here is your salmon entrée this evening sir, it was cooked with garlic and rosemary on our fracked gas stove.” Blegh.

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