'Methane' Sounds Worse Than 'Natural Gas'

But in fact, it is pretty much the same thing. We should call it by its name.

Natural gas being flared
Is that natural gas or methane?.


sakakawea7/ Getty Images

One reason that nobody wanted to eat Patagonian toothfish was its awful name; renamed Chilean sea bass in 1977 by an American fish merchant, it became so popular that it is now endangered. Similarly, the Chinese gooseberry wasn't very popular, particularly during the Cultural Revolution; that is about when the name kiwifruit became marketing gold.

Names can make things sound so much better. Take methane, more commonly known as natural gas; it was named that to separate it from what people used to use in cities, town gas, which was manufactured from coal. It sounded so much more ... natural. That's why last year I wrote:

"I wonder if people would feel as good about burning so-called 'natural' gas if it was actually called methane or if there would be a kiss for a methane cook. If they knew that it was a greenhouse gas causing problems before it is even burned." 
A kiss for a gas cook ad
Promo image. The Gas Council

Now Kate Yoder of Grist points to a study from the Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication which asked the question: "How much does natural gas benefit from its name, which includes the word 'natural'?" The researchers asked respondents to rate their feelings about four terms: natural gas, natural methane gas, methane, or methane gas. According to the researchers,

"We found that the term 'natural gas' evokes much more positive feelings than do any of the three methane terms. Conversely, the terms 'methane' and 'methane gas' evoke much more negative feelings than does 'natural gas.' The hybrid term 'natural methane gas' is in the middle — it is perceived more positively than 'methane' or 'methane gas,' but more negatively than 'natural gas.' That is, the addition of the word natural substantially increases respondents’ positive feelings about methane, indicating that the positive feelings generated by the word 'natural' partially compensate for the negative feelings generated by the word 'methane.'"

The study authors conclude that "the terms used to communicate about this fossil fuel can have dramatically different effects." Indeed, and the word "natural" has always been questionable. I actually remember a jingle from the radio when I was a kid :

"Natural Gas can heat or cool, Natural Gas, the modern fuel, Natural Gas, does it better, Naturally."

With a sexy woman's voice doing the emphasis on the last naturally. The use of the word when it comes to food has been argued at the FDA, who have noted that while they do not regulate the term,

"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." 

After methane comes out of the ground it is cleaned up, artificial stuff like odorants are added so that you can smell it, so if it was a food it would fail the test, but calling it "natural" makes it sound so much more benign. After all, would you put a methane stove in your house?

The Yale researchers noted that "natural gas" generated associations with words like clean and cooking whereas "methane" associated with gascowsgreenhouse, global warming, and climate change. Perhaps because of their egregious use of the word "natural" the industry can be forced to change the name of their product to methane. People might think twice about it then.