“Certified natural gas” is not a source of clean energy
The federal government should not help the fossil fuel industry by certifying methane gas “clean” or “environmentally friendly.” That would be greenwashing, and mislead the public.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans became aware of the hazards of a product that was everywhere: cigarettes.
While public health officials urged Americans to quit smoking altogether, tobacco companies took a different tack, marketing “light” cigarettes that consumers were led to believe were less harmful, but turned out not to reduce the health risks of smoking.
Some products are inherently harmful. And making only slight – or merely cosmetic – improvements to dangerous products distracts from the need to quit using them entirely.
That’s exactly what’s currently happening with methane gas (a.k.a. “natural gas”). Methane gas is a major contributor to global warming, both in its original form and when it is burned. Nevertheless, gas producers have been working to come up with an “environmentally friendly” certification system for methane gas. And they are looking for help from the Biden administration, with the Department of Energy recently engaging in talks with energy companies and representatives of other countries about the development of such a system.
Proponents of certification argue that it is important to have comprehensive, transparent and verifiable data on the emissions impact of methane gas production and transportation, based on independent analysis – not industry self-reporting. They are right about that, especially since the U.S. had the second-highest methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry of any country in the world in 2021.
But, at its root, the certification effort is aimed at helping U.S. producers sell more gas by creating a pathway for it to be marketed as “green.”
According to a recent story in Reuters, gas could be certified as “low- or no-carbon” if the producer either “reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with getting it to market” or bought “carbon offsets to cut its net climate impact.”
Both routes to certification are Band-Aids at best, and at worst a dangerous diversion. Cutting methane leaks is critical: gas producers should be required to do it, not given extra credit for it. But the confirmation of reductions would depend on effective monitoring and verification, both of which have proven tricky when it comes to methane leakage. (The federal government has long underestimated methane leakage from gas operations and from local gas distribution systems in cities.) And the industry has a track record of installing solutions to reduce leakage that they either fail to maintain and keep functioning, or that simply don’t work.
The second route – purchasing carbon “offsets” – is even more problematic. Buying a carbon offset means paying someone, somewhere else, to reduce their climate emissions so that you can continue to pollute. At best, offsets are difficult to monitor and verify, and at worst, they can be worthless. Carbon offsets have emerged as a major greenwashing tool that is ripe for abuse.
But, perhaps most importantly, the certification scheme does nothing to address the emissions from actually burning the gas, which, after all, is the whole point of producing gas in the first place, and represents its biggest environmental problem.
In 2022, the U.S. produced 43.37 trillion cubic feet of methane gas. If all of that were burned, the resulting climate pollution would exceed the annual emissions of all of America’s 532 active coal-fired power plants. So even if the gas industry eliminated the pollution from producing and transporting that gas – likely impossible – or bought high-quality carbon offsets, emissions from our consumption of gas would still continue to drive global warming.
Methane gas should never be certified as “green,” “sustainable” or “responsible,” because it is none of those things. Putting a green stamp on gas misleads the public about the true environmental harm of methane gas and gives license to the U.S. and gas companies to continue exporting carbon-intensive energy around the world.
Rather than giving cover to the fossil fuel industry to engage in greenwashing, the U.S. should focus on solutions that reduce our dependence on gas, such as ending subsidies for fossil fuels, ending investments in new fossil fuel production capacity, and incentivizing the growth and use of renewable energy technologies.
There is no such thing as a safe cigarette. And there is no climate-safe way to produce and consume fossil fuels. To pretend otherwise is to put ourselves, and our future, at risk.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.
Former Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate.