Edgar (Eddie) Dearden skips the small talk when he meets someone new, instead starting the conversation by asking them if they "know what natural gas is." The question is the centrepiece of his self-appointed quest to fight the fossil fuel industry's insidious disinformation campaign painting natural gas as a climate solution.

To his dismay, most people the B.C.-based sustainable building designer has talked to don't know much about the gas — including that it is a potent fossil fuel.

"(These are) accountants, carpenters, fishermen, all sorts of different skill sets," he said. "None of them seem to know what natural gas is."

Natural gas is a term used to describe a gas made up largely of methane, a greenhouse gas up to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. It is typically extracted through fracking, an industrial process linked to earthquakes and water pollution, before being refined into gas used to heat homes, fuel cookstoves and generate electricity. It is Canada's most widely used energy source, ahead of both oil and hydroelectric power.

Methane is responsible for about a quarter of the global warming we experience. And the fossil fuel industry is responsible for about 36 per cent of global methane emissions each year, most of which come from leaks in wells or pipelines. Like other fossil fuels, natural gas also releases CO2 when it is burned, further contributing to the climate crisis.

Nor is the gas piped into Canadian homes very "natural," said Dearden.

He should know. Originally from Australia, he trained as a chemical engineer and worked in that country's fossil fuel industry for years. It was only after coming to Canada and joining Vancouver's environmental scene that he quit the fossil fuel industry and started working in sustainable design to, as he puts it, "atone for my sins."

The methane gas sold to Canadians is typically extracted from deep underground through fracking, he explained. Extracting it involves a process where steam and fluids are pressed through gas-filled rock to push the gas to the surface. The extracted gas is then refined in an industrial facility to remove other naturally occurring gases before it is shipped to consumers.

Yet, most Canadians "don't know or haven't thought about" how the fuel heating their homes and feeding their cookstoves impacts the climate and the environment, Dearden says. It's an ignorance he pins on fossil fuel companies' years-long greenwashing campaigns that pitch the fuel as a "clean" alternative to coal and integral to a climate-friendly future.

It was only after coming to Canada and joining Vancouver's environmental scene that Edgar (Eddie) Dearden quit the fossil fuel industry and started working in sustainable design to, as he puts it, "atone for my sins."

Methane gas has been called "natural gas" pretty much since it was first commercialized by an American businessman in 1821. At the time, coal was the dominant fuel in most industrialized countries, generating thick clouds of heavy smog. Natural gas burns more cleanly, and fossil fuel companies wasted no time promoting the fuel as a "natural" alternative, which was more appealing to consumers.

The trend continued for the next hundred years. For instance, in the 1930s, a U.S. company pitched methane as a "healthful heat." More recently, the fossil fuel industry has funded several campaigns to frame it as a climate-friendly alternative to coal. While natural gas generates fewer harmful emissions than coal, major scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree we must rapidly stop using fossil fuels, including natural gas.

Researchers have determined the "natural" nomenclature has proved key to the success of those campaigns. A 2021 paper found roughly 76 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of methane when it is called "natural gas."

Other terms to describe the fuel like "methane," "fossil gas" or "fracked gas" were considerably less popular.

The study also found respondents associated the word "methane" with climate change, whereas the term "natural gas" was most strongly linked to words like "clean."

In Canada, fossil fuel producers started pushing the idea of methane as a "clean" or "sustainable" gas around 2010, explained Toronto Metropolitan University communications researcher Sibo Chen, who studies the fossil fuel industry.

The rapid growth of the U.S. fracking industry had lowered prices, and the industry wanted to expand into international markets — plans that put the industry on course to blow through the Paris Agreement climate targets. Fossil fuel companies started marketing natural gas as a "cleaner" so-called "transition fuel," arguing they needed to expand production and gas infrastructure to support a transition towards energy sources like solar or wind, he said.

These marketing efforts, along with the innocuous intonations of the term "natural" and the gas' relative invisibility in people's daily lives — unlike gasoline, we usually don't buy it at the pump — combined to make methane and its impacts "invisible" to many people, Chen said.

Recent years have seen growing awareness about the harms of natural gas. Researchers in the 2021 study found many people perceive fracking negatively, and the years-long conflict around the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. has also highlighted issues with the fuel.

Moreover, dozens of cities and towns, from Vancouver to New York, have banned developers from using methane gas in new buildings against strong opposition from the fossil fuel industry.

Still, Dearden believes there is another simple step governments, environmental groups and journalists should take with haste to combat the industry greenwashing: renaming natural gas.

"I want the word ‘natural gas’ to be banned. Plain and simple … it's just a bad name. It's fossil gas," he said. "There's nothing about the term natural gas that would lead (people) to the conclusion that that's fossil fuel."

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Interesting article on just how unaware people are about what natural gas is. The greenwashing by the oil & gas sector needs to stop and it is time for the Federal government to put their foot down and force the industry to call a spade a spade and not something else.

Isn't calling it "natural" gas akin to false advertising.
Damn right it should be illegal for the industry to peddle it as that.
As an aside, whenever I try to initiate a discussion ie.make people think about he same topic on our cozy neighbourhood (slice of city app.) I get tremendous and often bitter push back (and relatively little support) from an assortment of climate denying, status-quo hugging, why should we do anything look at China etc., generally uninformed folks who have been hoodwinked by various sources of "information" they consider gospel.

Not hoodwinked only. Invested.
If you live in Alberta, and the push back sounds as if you might.......you're among folks who've been taught to substitute status for value. Weshould all be well aware of the snob appeal they invested Gas Ranges with over the years.

Only the best for the best people...ie US.

To discover now that you've been a patsy to some dubious marketing.....and that five minutes research could have shone a light on your misconceptions, is a hard lesson for the privileged....they defend their gas stove.

Often it cost them a very pretty penny....remember those gas stoves that were always on????

Lost a friend over that controversy....since her sister had one, and she was bragging about it before I cut short her sense of familial accomplishment. And if we think Methane is hard to pronounce, just wait for the pushback against the coming of affordable Heat Pumps!!!

A perfect exemple of the power of a sustained PR campaign to mislead public opinion! The vast majority of « fossil gas » is extracted by fracking. And most independant scientists (ie scientists who won’t be fired if they speak their mind!) have solid evidence that the TOTAL FOOTPRINT of fracked gas is equal or worst than coal.

Yes. And it destroys potable water......in much the same way that in situ mining for bitumen does. Turns out there are some toxic substances besides methane........that should stay in deep earth. Fracking brings that all up to the surface, where it can destroy life as we know it.

Who says the radical right doesn't believe in evolution?

Yes, and maybe we should start calling LNG Liquified Methane Gas, LMG. It's another environmentally disastrous boondoggle that has been greenwashed and thrust upon us.

It's Methane mostly, right.

Shocking how absolutely dumb most of us are. We recently got rid of our electric stove for an induction....then started reading about the toxin by products of those wonderful gas ranges..........and removed our daughter's gas stove for an induction, helped our son replace the old electric range in the house he and his partner bought with an induction range.....

Imagine the stupidity of a generation getting status out of poisoning their children with nitrous oxide (I think that's the name of the by product). Imagine high upper ups who know better, blah blah blahing about Blue hydrogen...........assuming I bet that we'll associate blue with water, and not the fracked gas that is destroying potable water on a routine and daily basis.

SHAME ON THE OILY GAS INDUSTRY FOR ITS ADVERTISING SPINS....but more shame on the lot of us, for sucking it up. Back to Chemistry 101 people. Do 5 minutes of research....or unlike me, read the above article. More than once if necessary.

And then consider Acting. Differently.

The main nitrogen containing byproducts of burning natural gas in air are nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) not nitrous oxide (N2O).

Methane gas by itself may not be toxic, but the marker gas in it is. That's the stuff they put in it so people with a leak can smell it.