Dear Dot: Is “Clean-Burning Natural Gas” a Thing?



Is there such a thing as clean burning natural gas?


The Short Answer: No.

Dear Val,

Your letter catches me on a beautiful early spring afternoon with the birds chittering in the trees. I long to walk in the woods with my dogs and not think about the ways in which fossil fuel companies bamboozle us, and so I am tempted to give you just this: A simple and straightforward ‘no’ (see The Short Answer, above). No, there is no such thing as “clean burning natural gas.”

But, Val, I am constitutionally incapable of leaving a question unresearched, unexamined, unconsidered, unexplained. I am entirely too committed to nuance, to answers that include “however”, and “but,” and “also,” and “although.” And so I will delay the birds and the trees and the sun and the path that winds along a river and takes me and my dogs deeper into the woods and will instead use this beautiful early spring afternoon to tell you why the words on this big green truck are balderdash. Also … green?! The time and energy that no doubt went into the meeting during which overpaid marketing consultants concluded that painting a lie in one shade of green on top of another shade of green might imbue some sort of subliminal eco-authority darn near makes me fume, Val. 

And yes, I said “lie.” 

So let us refamiliarize ourselves with greenwashing. Greenwashing is the practice of making a company or product seem better for the planet than it actually is. The tricky thing with greenwashing is that it isn’t always entirely a lie. Products that have been greenwashed are not necessarily awful. Sometimes they’re even better than other ones. It’s just that they’re not precisely as eco-friendly (argh. How I hate that phrase, but sometimes it is the best shorthand available) as they say they are, or in the way they say they are. 

Consider products that claim to be good for the planet because they’re “biodegradable,” meaning that they will break down, courtesy of microbes and fungi and bacteria. Sounds like a win for the planet, right? When we hear “biodegradable”, we think, for instance, of veggie scraps, which require just a few weeks to decompose. And indeed lots of things are “biodegradable”. I am biodegradable. So are you, Val. But most things aren’t going to biodegrade quickly. It could take years, in some cases, even centuries. (If a deceased you is wearing a polyester leisure suit, for instance, Val, that dubious fashion statement will remain long after you’ve become dirt.) So unless this claim of biodegradability is accompanied with specific info about the time period in which it will biodegrade and under what conditions, it’s greenwashing to use the term to signal that it’s a better choice for the planet.

Thing is, natural gas is, in fact, cleaner than, say, oil from Canada’s Tar Sands. But is it “clean”? 


I apologize, Val, if I’ve distracted you with thoughts of what to wear to your own funeral. Back to natural gas and whether it’s “clean burning.” How does greenwashing play into that?

clean gas truck

Those with a stake in natural gas want us to cozy up to it as an alternative to coal and oil. It’s “natural,” they coo. It’s “clean burning.” And natural gas does, in fact, emit fewer greenhouse gasses when burned than other fossil fuels — about 50 percent less CO2 than coal

But, as Climate Reality Project points out, half of too many is far from zero, and carbon dioxide is not the only (or even the worst) greenhouse gas. Drilling and extraction of natural gas leaks a greenhouse gas that is particularly potent (from a heat-trapping point of view) — methane. And what do they mean by “leaks”? The Union of Concerned Scientists refer to them as “fugitive” methane emissions and peg them at 1–9 percent of nat gas’s total life cycle emissions, which includes any/all emissions from extraction, transportation, and, yes, burning. 

And how potent is this leaked methane? About 30% more potent than CO2. Furthermore, the folks at Climate Reality Project tell us that methane is around “120 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat.” National Geographic reports, “On a twenty-year timescale, a methane molecule is roughly ninety times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than a molecule of carbon dioxide.” And the US Environmental Protection Agency calls methane more than twenty-five times as potent as CO2. Whatever figure we settle on, we can agree that more trapped heat is dangerous for the planet.

But leaks of 1–9 percent don’t seem so bad. Less than 10 percent! What’s the big deal? 

Simple math, Val. Because methane is so potent, in order for it to have lower life-cycle emissions than coal (which we all agree is filthy), the whole system’s methane leakage must be kept below 3.2 percent. Some climate scientists suggest it needs to be even lower than that, including Cornell University climate scientist Robert Howarth, who also told National Geographic that “over the past few years of research I’d say the whole argument for methane for a bridge fuel is really gone.” (A “bridge” fuel is an environmentally preferable fuel to be used while we transition to renewable energy sources.)

And even if the industry was able to keep leakage below acceptable percentages, methane isn’t natural gas’s only issue of concern.

Much of our natural gas comes from a process called “fracking.” Fracking is as aggressive as it sounds — cracking open the Earth to extract fossil fuel. Not only does it employ heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels, but also, it can cause earthquakes, and it releases hazardous chemicals that can make their way into groundwater and, in some instances, cause drinking water to catch fire. Moreover, in areas where drilling occurs, the Union of Concerned Scientists report elevated levels of air pollutants, including particulate matter and ozone — particularly dangerous to young children. 

And even when natural gas doesn’t come from fracking, it’s still a fossil fuel. 

In short, Val, the nat gas industry’s definition of “clean” doesn’t line up with mine. 

The natural gas industry is aiming to position it as a good bridge fuel. The problem with that argument is that it potentially diverts investment into another fossil fuel instead of moving faster on our adoption of renewables in order to get in line with the climate goals laid out in the Paris Agreement. The European Investment Bank, the EU’s state-backed lender, has “virtually ruled out investing in natural gas as inconsistent with its climate commitments,” according to the Economist. Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas offers something of a cautionary tale, as well. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the consequent skyrocketing energy prices, while horrific for a zillion reasons, has nonetheless had one positive consequence: it’s accelerated Europe’s transition toward electrification by about five years, says Leah Stokes, UC Santa Barbara political science professor. 

Alas, the birds and the trees and the sun and the path continue to call me, Val, and so I’m going to leave you with this: “Clean-burning natural gas” is a dying industry’s attempt to eke out another few years of profits on the back of a planet that is crying out for healing. “Fossil fuel companies profit off delay,” Stokes reminds us. 

And on that note, let’s neither of us delay one more minute getting outside into this gift of a spring day. 



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