‘Methane’ vs. ‘natural gas’: Which words sway the public?

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Americans have a more positive perception of the term “natural gas” than of phrases that include the word “methane,” according to a new study that examined views of the fossil fuel.

The analysis from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication surveyed nearly 2,000 people and also found that adding the word “natural” increased respondents’ positive feelings about methane. The Yale team asked respondents — who were roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — to rate positive and negative feelings about “natural gas,” “natural methane gas,” “methane” or “methane” gas.

“This experiment found that the American public has very different feelings about and associations to ‘natural gas’ than they do to ‘methane’ even though natural gas is composed primarily of methane,” the study said.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program and study co-author, said the word “natural” itself is a “very positive term in most people’s minds” and gives a boost to the word “gas” on its own.

“That’s part of it,” Leiserowitz said, “And then the other is that there’s just been a decadeslong, massive, multiple million-dollar advertising campaign by the natural gas industry to promote its product as natural gas — and moreover, to literally argue that natural gas is clean energy, so they have coupled that, in many people’s minds, as natural gas: clean, clean natural gas.”

The study cites previous research that natural gas is viewed more favorably by the public than other fossil fuels, like oil and coal, and is seen as less harmful to human health by comparison.

For example, the Pew Research Center in October said that public support for increasing natural gas use was greater than support for expanding either oil or coal use.

The Yale research found that “natural gas” was associated with themes such as energy, clean, fuel and cooking, whereas terms with the word “methane” were associated with cows, gas, greenhouse, global warming and climate change.

“‘Methane’ and ‘methane gas’ generate much stronger negative feelings and associations to pollution than does ‘natural gas’ and this effect is consistent across political parties,” the study said.

Gene Theodori, a sociology professor at Sam Houston State University whose research includes energy-related topics, said he was not surprised by the study’s findings.

“I believe people are used to hearing the words ’emitted’ or ’emissions’ accompany the use of ‘methane,'” he said in an email, lending to a more negative connotation and association with waste. Theodori was not involved with the study.

David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change International, which supports a transition from fossil fuels, also said it was not terribly surprising to see natural gas viewed somewhat favorably. Turnbull cited efforts from industry and politicians to “paint a picture of gas as something different from what it is: a dirty fossil fuel that threatens communities and our climate.”

“We need decision makers and the public to be dealing in reality and not the distorted landscape that gas industry propaganda creates,” Turnbull said in an email.

Proponents of natural gas point to emissions reductions from the coal-to-natural gas switch, while opponents say building more natural gas-fired power plants would only lock in gas-related emissions (Climatewire, Nov. 25). After carbon dioxide, methane is the second-most abundant human-caused greenhouse gas, according to EPA, and makes up roughly 20% of global emissions.

Daphne Magnuson, a spokesperson for the Natural Gas Supply Association, said the group was pleased to see the public’s positive associations with the term “natural gas” and said that’s the “result of decades of familiarity with the uses and benefits of natural gas.”

“As the world moves toward a lower carbon future, we are proud of the pretty remarkable contribution that natural gas has made to reducing carbon and empowering renewables,” Magnuson said in an emailed statement, adding that addressing methane emissions is “essential” to a clean energy future.