The high stakes of the natural gas branding battle

The future of natural gas could rest at least partly on whether the widely used fuel keeps going by that name, a new study finds.

Driving the news: Yale University researchers, in a survey, found lower support for several other titles. Those included “natural methane gas,” “methane,” “fossil gas” and “fracked gas.”

The big picture: “Persistent use of the term ‘natural gas’ in public discourse may lead the public to continue to underestimate the climate risks and harms associated with this energy source,” states the paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

  • It notes that prior polling shows favorable public attitudes toward natural gas.

How it works: Part of the study involved asking over 2,900 adults if they had positive or negative feelings for different names, and then to what general degree.

  • Other options all fared worse than the fuel’s common name. However, there are also partisan differences, with Republicans more supportive than Democrats of all names, and among Democrats, only “natural gas” is viewed favorably on average.
  • Lower ratings for names other than “natural gas” are present among both parties. But Democrats were even more negative on “fossil gas” and “fracked gas” than “methane,” while in contrast, Republicans favorably view “fossil gas” and “fracked gas,” albeit less than “natural gas.”

Why it matters: Gas, the largest U.S. electricity source, produces far less CO2 than coal when burned. It’s a key reason why U.S. power sector emissions fell over the last decade as it displaced coal.

  • But leaks and releases of the potent greenhouse gas methane during production, pipeline transport and other parts of the development and distribution chain erode some of those benefits.
  • And pathways to meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goal require movement away from all fossil fuels.

What we’re watching: How much alternatives to the fuel’s common name, which the industry prefers, might catch on. Already, some activists and experts have been avoiding the term “natural.”

For instance, a new paper on fossil fuels and global warming in the journal Nature uses the term “fossil methane gas.”

The intrigue: Co-author of the Journal of Environmental Psychology paper Anthony Leiserowitz said the term “natural” has long been helpful when selling various kinds of products.

  • “‘Natural’ and ‘nature’ more broadly has all these positive connotations for people,” the Yale climate communication expert told Axios in comments that also reflect the study that’s summarized here.
  • “The industry has absolutely benefitted, as this study shows, from the dominant term used to describe this fossil fuel,” said Leiserowitz.

The context: The paper arrives amid political and legislative battles over natural gas. Senate Democratic leaders are looking to impose new fees on methane emissions in the wider spending and tax package they’re hoping to move on a party-line vote.

The oil-and-gas industry is opposing the effort. Industry groups spelled out their concerns in a recent letter to lawmakers that cites the sector’s ongoing moves to rein in methane leaks and supports direct EPA methane regulations.

The bottom line: The paper says that “climate communicators” seeking to speed the transition away from gas should use the term “methane gas” or “methane.”

Meanwhile “fossil gas” and “fracked gas” should be “used with caution” depending on the audience, given how they’re differently perceived among Republicans and Democrats.