Cities and municipalities across the United States have begun passing laws to limit or eliminate natural gas in new construction. The media has focused on these laws as strategies to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in our atmosphere. While burning natural gas produces less CO2 than coal or oil, it’s far from a clean or healthy energy source. In fact, the natural gas industry has been working for over a century to convince Americans to choose natural gas for their homes. Digging into the history of natural gas marketing presents a revealing look at how an industry drives its consumption.
The Nature of Natural Gas
In an era where energy choices hold significant weight, the marketing tactics employed by the natural gas industry have played a pivotal role in shaping public perception. By labeling natural gas as “natural” and employing various strategies, the industry successfully conveyed a message of safety, sophistication, and environmental superiority.
Natural gas, a prevalent combustion fuel across the United States, serves multiple purposes, including electricity generation, industrial processes, and residential heating. Composed primarily of methane, with varying amounts of ethane, propane, butane, and other elements, natural gas is widely considered a versatile energy source. With an average gross heating value of approximately 1,020 British thermal units per standard cubic foot (Btu/scf), it is often perceived as a cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels.
The Power of a Name
To bolster public support, the natural gas industry embraced marketing tactics that capitalized on public sentiment and aspirations. By associating the term “natural gas” with notions of cleanliness, efficiency, and elegance, the industry aimed to position it as a superior choice for consumers. The campaigns also highlighted the appeal of gas stoves, often portraying them as symbols of class and sophistication, thereby influencing the purchasing decisions of homeowners and builders.
Many consumers remain confused about the name of the fuel, “natural gas.” The gas is, in fact, natural–meaning it comes from the Earth. It is a fossil fuel and a natural product of organic decomposition. However, consumers have different perceptions of the word “natural” and assume the fuel is clean, safe, healthy, and oftentimes, renewable. If it comes from nature, it must be good.
Natural gas marketing, beginning with the simple name of the fuel, has proven to be extremely successful. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication studied the impact of naming natural gas “natural.” In reality, the main component of this fuel is methane. Yet when consumers were asked about their perceptions of “natural gas” versus their feelings about “methane,” the responses were wildly different. According to their report: “Overall, ‘natural gas’ generated the most associations to themes like energy, clean, fuel, and cooking. By contrast, ‘methane,’ ‘methane gas,’ and ‘natural methane gas’ generated the most associations to themes like gas, cows, greenhouse, global warming, and climate change.”
Natural Gas Marketing is Everywhere
The industry has implemented some of the best natural gas marketing strategies in history. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll find them everywhere. Have you heard the marketing slogan “Now we’re cooking with gas?” That was coined by Carroll Everard “Deke” Houlgate, a Californian who worked in public relations in the 1930s for the American Gas Association. Today, watch your favorite home improvement shows or open a fancy home decorating magazine, and likely you’ll find gas ranges in their kitchens. That’s not a coincidence.
In 1988, the natural gas industry produced a music video to appeal to a younger generation of consumers, promoting the positive benefits of natural gas. Tactics like this, in combination with classy advertisements of gourmet kitchens featuring granite countertops and gas ranges, have been hugely successful. From the 1970s to 2019, the percentage of new single-family American homes using natural gas climbed from below 30% to about 50%. The American Gas Association claims that 68% of the industry’s total revenue comes from natural gas used in homes and apartments.
Actual Safety Concerns
While marketing efforts successfully portrayed natural gas as a safe and desirable option, concerns began to arise regarding its environmental and health impacts. The combustion of natural gas in boilers, furnaces, and stoves results in emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These emissions contribute to air pollution and climate change, raising questions about the long-term viability of natural gas as a clean fuel option.
While natural gas stoves have been regarded as a preferred choice for cooking, studies have revealed concerning health implications. Gas stoves emit pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, which can lead to respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, and increased asthma risk—especially among children. Poor ventilation exacerbates these risks, and low-income households, often lacking proper ventilation systems, are disproportionately affected.
How is Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) different?
RNG differs from conventional natural gas in its production process and environmental impact. While conventional natural gas is derived from fossil fuel sources, RNG is generated from renewable organic materials such as agricultural waste, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants through a process called anaerobic digestion or biomass gasification. The production of RNG involves capturing and treating methane emissions from these organic sources, thereby preventing their release into the atmosphere, where methane is a potent greenhouse gas. By converting organic waste into RNG, this renewable energy source offers a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative alternative to conventional natural gas, making it a valuable tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change.
The Transition to Cleaner Alternatives
As the urgency to address climate change and indoor air quality grew, public sentiment started shifting away from natural gas. Increasingly, communities and states have taken steps to phase out natural gas in favor of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar electricity. Legislative efforts to impose stricter standards on appliances and construction also indicate a push towards more sustainable alternatives. However, the gas industry has responded with anti-electrification campaigns, lobbying against cleaner building codes and emphasizing the affordability and reliability of natural gas. Keep up with the latest information about clean air initiatives with the Rogue Valley Clean Cities Coalition.