The myth of the methane transition fuel

by Roberto A. Chia-Balmaceda

It comes as no surprise to see that companies such as Dominion Energy, with an ingrained stake in the future of the fossil fuel industry, would want to market energy sources such as natural gas (aka methane, its primary component) in a way that makes it as palatable as possible, even appealing to some. However, buying into the virtues of methane use would ignore its role as a potent greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide as a cause of global warming, and a source of toxic pollutants when it is leaked into the atmosphere. Understanding natural gas as a fuel source and the danger to the environment it poses from its extraction to its use, can be confusing for consumers. This is especially true when, despite the well-identified risks, companies that bring methane to our homes work continually to position it favorably in the public’s minds, labeling it as a “transition fuel.” In this context, the “transition” we are referring to is the switch to clean sources of energy production, a shift that fossil fuel companies say will require small steps to achieve, and — as part of that progress — a “cleaner” fuel source — methane — should be used in the meantime in place of coal and oil.1

When people consider fossil fuels in their day-to-day lives, it’s likely they’ll first consider their use in their homes. What comes to mind may be the electricity that powers their devices, the stoves that cook their food, and the energy that provides them with heat during cold winter months and powers their air conditioning during these increasingly warmer summers. I grew up a customer of Dominion Energy, just like families in the 15 states in which it operates, understanding that cooking with gas was always the way to go. But I have learned since of the negative impacts of methane, despite how they are downplayed by gas companies and utilities. While coal is well known to have devastating long and short-term impacts, it is time to turn our attention to the campaigns that companies such as Dominion Energy have been directing towards our families to convince them that natural gas is safe and clean, and a necessary power and heating source well into this century.

How do they carry out this strategy? They engage in greenwashing: stating support for solutions to climate change, while failing or lagging behind in actions that would make a true difference. Dominion Energy, for example, has committed to embracing solar and wind renewables and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.2 While substantial progress should be made by 2030 if some of the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided, Dominion is instead planning new gas plants by that year (while maintaining coal plants beyond the decade).3 In the meantime, the company is encouraging demand to grow by presenting a positive image of natural gas in its marketing, for example, the superiority of a natural gas grill for outdoor cooking or the safety and reliability of underground pipes in severe weather.4 It is also encouraging demand from homeowners and businesses for natural gas by adding new gas connections and encouraging switching to that heat source.

The US has an emissions target of reducing economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels in 2030.5 Achieving this target isn’t possible without the full commitment of utilities to move to renewables and help their customers become more energy efficient. However, while utilities like Dominion are investing in renewables, the pace and amount largely don’t match the need, leaving much of the power still generated by the burning of coal and natural gas.6 Instead, they are devoting resources to a false solution meant to extend the life of the natural gas infrastructure: “renewable” natural gas (RNG). It is presented as a clean fuel option to customers, produced through the decomposition of waste. But it has several shortcomings, most notably the fact that it is methane, and if it is leaked into the atmosphere, it becomes a prime contributor to global warming. In addition, it can release toxins when burned and is only capable of supplying a small percentage of the demand for natural gas (prolonging the need for the fossil fuel).

Both natural gas and renewable natural gas are positioned as bridges to clean energy. Is this approach feasible in our current global and local environment through companies such as Dominion Energy? The answer is, in short, no.

While the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere is well recognized as the primary cause of global warming, less well known is the role of methane. Methane has the capacity to trap “at least 100 times as much [heat] as the CO₂.”7  Unlike CO₂, methane breaks down relatively quickly in our atmosphere, but in our current industrial climate the rate at which methane is added to our atmosphere keeps increasing each year. Human activities, including extracting and transporting natural gas, are burdening the atmosphere with growing amounts of the gas. This means that while methane can dissipate faster than CO₂, this natural process is being overwhelmed, resulting in atmospheric methane trapping greater and greater amounts of heat.

In discussions of the clean energy transition, many fossil fuel companies will be quick to raise the argument that the shift to sustainable energy sources is still a long-term goal and that, in the meantime, a “cleaner” fuel source should be used as we move away from coal and oil.8 However, according to a study from TransitionZero, “due to the declining cost of renewable energy and battery storage coupled with the increasing price volatility of gas, we found it is now cheaper to switch from coal-to-clean than coal-to-gas.”9 Additionally, while natural gas burns more “cleanly” than coal or oil, the long term environmental and health costs of both using and extracting methane is not worth the short-term benefits that can be gained from its use.10 The release of CO₂ and NO₂ (nitrogen dioxide) during the burning of methane has been known to contribute to respiratory inflammation, reduced lung function, and a greater likelihood for those with pre-existing conditions to require serious medical treatment.11 In homes, gas burners can be directly responsible for methane leakage that pollutes the air even when not in use.12

Beyond the current damage to individuals and society, we must be aware of the environmental injustice that methane extraction and use inflict on future generations. Every pipeline and compressor station that fossil fuel companies build increases the number of assets that will decline in value with the growth of sustainable energy sources. At the same time, continued investment in gas infrastructure reduces the amount of funding available for renewable energy projects.

Additionally, the risks posed by relying on fossil fuel transportation and production facilities cannot be over-emphasized.13 Over reliance on fossil fuels has put the United States in a position where it must use its power to defend fossil-fuel use domestically and trade abroad, a practice that can undermine a country’s national security from foreign and domestic threats as the current conflict in Europe demonstrates. We cannot continue to commit ourselves to defending fossil fuel producers given the other options we have available to us.14 We must shift to better sources of energy, and we are at the point where our options can supersede the effectiveness of methane energy production in every respect. As an example, offshore wind has been found to actually improve conditions for taxpayers by increasing the value on leases in contrast to offshore oil and gas projects.15

To overcome the efforts of companies that seek to further entrench our homes and families in methane dependent systems through the use of greenwashing and misinformation, we must push towards a clean energy future that starts now. This will require the complete cessation of new facilities for the production and transportation of natural gas. This will allow for immediate short-term benefits16 and encourage our clean energy transition through efforts such as building decarbonization.17 We have an opportunity to act now in the defense of future generations by ending our fossil fuel dependence, and that can start by stopping methane.

Roberto A. Chia-Balmaceda is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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