Natural gas is now fossil gas. Does it make a difference?

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Everyone knows what natural gas is. It’s the stuff we use to heat our homes and fuel power plants across the state.

But now, with the stroke of a pen and a vote, the 22-member group charged with designing New York’s road map to a carbon-free economy has changed the name of natural gas to “fossil gas.”

The new name emerged back in December when members of the state’s appointed Climate Action Council agreed to use the term in their draft scoping plan which is a road map to clean energy in the coming years. The plan lays out preliminary strategies and policies for making large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions by 2050, as outlined in a 2019 law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

The draft plan refers to fossil gas in a number of contexts.

“The vast majority of current fossil gas customers (residential, commercial, and industrial) will transition to electricity by 2050,” reads part of the plan that calls for electrification of buildings — that is using electricity rather than gas to heat homes, offices, schools and industrial spaces.

The move hasn’t come without some controversy. And it’s an example of how language and semantics play a role in discussions about climate change and how to combat it.


There are some technical reasons for changing the terminology. Natural gas, for instance, is in fact a fossil fuel.

But using the term fossil gas rather than natural gas could also be seen as part of a larger effort to sell the state’s clean energy plans to the public.

As policymakers enact an ambitious shift toward renewable power such as solar and wind, New Yorkers will see changes — in the kinds of cars they drive, the way they power their homes and probably in their energy bills, which will likely rise, at least in the short term, due to the changes.

With that in mind, the language used to describe these changes is important in convincing the broader public that the cost is worthwhile in order to fight global warming.

Council members reaffirmed that idea during a meeting last month when they voted to swap the term fossil gas for natural gas in a chapter about infrastructure such as pipelines in the draft scoping plan.

“They said, and I agree, that calling gas ‘clean’ or ‘zero emissions’ or ‘natural’  is misleading. They further suggested calling gas ‘fossil gas’ rather than ‘natural gas,’ ” explained Robert Howarth, a Cornell University ecology and biology professor who serves on the Climate Action Council. The initial suggestion, he explained, came from a subcommittee of the CAC.

“We have agreed that ‘fossil gas’ is less misleading than ‘natural gas,’ ” he said in an email.

Not everyone on the CAC agreed, though.
 
“The word ‘fossil gas’ does not exist anywhere in any regulatory document,” said Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents power plants, many of which are gas-powered.

Switching terms from “natural” to “fossil” will be confusing and misleading to many members of the public, Donohue said. 

That’s especially important, he added, since the public hearings over the draft scoping plan have just started.

“My concern was that we’ve got to stop introducing new terminology. That was my worry,” said another CAC member, Dennis Elsenbeck, president of Viridi Parente, which makes electric battery packs to power heavy equipment like front-end loaders.

“The natural gas system is something that everybody is familiar with. I think fossil gas sounds more alarming than natural gas,” Elsenbeck added.

Elsenbeck, Donohue and Donna DeCarolis, who runs the National Fuel gas distribution firm in western New York, were the only members of the CAC to vote against the name change.

Public perceptions

But there is research that suggests the wording used to describe a certain type of fuel impacts the public perception.

“The American public perceives ‘natural gas’ much more favorably (76% favorable) than other fossil fuels like oil (51% ) or coal (39%),” according to a 2020 survey by the Yale University program on Climate Change Communication.

“Overall, ‘natural gas’ generated the most associations to themes like energy, clean, fuel, and cooking,” surveyors found. 

This survey compared the term “natural” gas to “methane” gas. Methane is the key component of natural gas.

Surveyors also found partisan differences when they asked about the term “fossil gas” which had a far more negative image among Democrats than Republicans.

Either way, people expressed more positive feelings toward the term natural gas.

“I think fossil gas sounds more alarming than natural gas,” said Elsenbeck.

“There’s a perception in the public that natural gas is more benign than, let’s say, coal or oil,” added Jeffrey Freedman, a research associate at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.

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