Is It Legal to Call Gas 'Natural'? It's Complicated

It may depend on where you live.

A little girl holding her doll and trying to light a gas stove with matches to cook a biscuit, Washington DC, circa 1932.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

When I last wrote about natural gas, sustainable home designer and former chemical engineer Edgar Dearden commented, "Stop calling it natural gas! There is nothing natural about it!" In the past I have suggested that we should just call it methane.

Dearden no longer uses the term, telling Treehugger: "I have first-hand experience of how this word is sabotaging climate action. Last year, back when I used to say 'natural' myself, I said to a homeowner client, 'Please don't use natural gas, it's a fossil fuel.' And he responded, 'If it's so bad, why do they call it natural?'"

This is not surprising. The Yale Program on Climate Change and Communications did a study of this and found that "natural gas" generated associations with words like clean and cooking, whereas "methane" is associated with gas, cows, greenhouse, global warming, and climate change.

Many (including me in Treehugger) have claimed it was called "natural" to differentiate it from the town gas, or manufactured gas, that was made from coal in the gasworks. It may not have started as a marketing term, but it certainly evolved into one. Dearden wondered if this "natural" has a specific meaning and if it was regulated. In the U.S., The Food and Drug Administration writes: 

"Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term "natural," we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of "natural" in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term "natural" to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food."  

But everyone from Michael Pollan in The New York Times to websites like Eater complains that it is barely regulated.

North of the border in Canada, where Dearden lives, it is a different story. The Canadian government has developed rules stating that "a food can be described as "natural" if the following criteria are met, namely that the food and its ingredients:

  • do not contain, or have ever contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavoring agent, or food additive
  • have not had any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water (for example, the removal of caffeine)
  • have not been subjected to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical, or biological state
Honey and Peanut Butter
"Natural" honey and peanut butter.

Edgar Dearden

They are quite strict about it. Dearden gives two examples (honey and peanut butter) to show how seemingly minor modifications make it illegal to call them "natural."

Natural gas production

Energy Information Administration

When you look at how the "natural" gas delivered to the customer is made, there is nothing natural about it. Dearden describes what happens during hydraulic fracturing (fracking):

"A gaseous slurry is released, containing methane, ethane, propane, butane and pentanes, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, nitrogen, helium water vapor and liquid water, mercury in elemental form and as chlorides. The gaseous slurry is sent via pipelines to a large petrochemical plant where it undergoes a series of chemical engineering operations and reactions: Gas oil separation, condensate separation, acid gas removal, hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide removal, nitrogen removal, demethanizer, and fractional distillation."

Then the gas companies add an odorant, mercaptan, so people can smell the gas when it leaks. And then they call this natural!

While these rules apply to food and not to fuel, the principle is that the public should not be deceived into thinking something is natural when it isn't. And we know from the Yale study—and Dearden's client—that people think "natural" is something better and healthier.

Yet we also know that gas appliances pollute indoor and outdoor air, that burning gas releases particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and, of course, carbon dioxide, gas is a primary source of indoor air pollution, and that gas stoves are bad for you and the environment.

It's clear the public is being deceived. Sticking with Canadian law because of their definition of "natural," there is a Competition Act that lays out rules for marketing. 

"The Competition Act contains provisions addressing false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices in promoting the supply or use of a product or any business interest. All representations, in any form whatever, that are false or misleading in a material respect are subject to the Act. If a representation could influence a consumer to buy or use the product or service advertised, it is material. To determine whether a representation is false or misleading, the courts consider the "general impression" it conveys, as well as its literal meaning."

It's clear methane fossil gas is not "natural." It is also clear from the Yale study that calling it natural influences the customer.

Perhaps it's time someone challenged the industry—although it is pretty big and they have been using the name for a long time. But certainly, we should all emulate Dearden and stop using the term. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Should it be Called “Natural Gas” or “Methane”?." Yale Program On Climate Change Communication.