The name of natural gas

I’ve seen some recent tweets, and partisan websites, claiming that calling geologically-stored methane “natural gas” was a major greenwashing achievement by the fossil fuel industry – that it’s meant to imply a benign fuel.

I can see why people think that. It’s the sort of steering of language that the modern fossil fuel industry might try to do. But in this case, I don’t think that happened: the term “natural gas” is older than “greenwashing”, older than most of the people using it, and arguably older than the environmental movement as a whole.

When natural gas was introduced, it was called that to distinguish it from “town gas” or “coal gas” – a nasty, noxious and somewhat toxic substance made from coal in each town’s gasworks, which used to cook our food and perhaps heat some homes. When the UK switched to natural gas in the 1970s there was a huge, co-ordinated campaign of technicians visiting every gas-connected home to adjust or replace appliances ready for the switchover… and that shift is why the old, often Victorian, gasworks in most cities – eye-catching for their “gasometer” storage systems – are no more. Calling it natural gas, rather than just gas, is also helpful when in the company of Americans, lest they think that we fry our eggs on petrol 😉.

None of this means, of course, that the fossil industry doesn’t benefit from the terminology. This paper (paywall), reported in Vox, suggests that people feel more positive about “natural gas” than “fossil gas” or “methane”. But in this case, so far as I know, it wasn’t a cynical ploy by the industry to call it that. They just lucked out with what it was already called.

Atmospheric view of gas being flared into an evening sky.
Image: Blake Thornberry, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Posted by simon in The wider world