“Natural” Gas is Not Clean Energy - It’s Climate Endangering Methane Gas

"Natural Gas" is Methane, NOT clean energyTo avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we need to transition away from burning fossil fuels and move to 100% clean, renewable energy. As we make big decisions in how we generate electricity, provide heat to our homes and businesses, and build our transportation system, we can’t afford to build new fossil fuel infrastructure that will continue our dependence on fossil fuels - coal, oil and so-called “natural” gas.

The fossil fuel industry really wants us to believe that "natural gas" is clean. The truth is that "natural gas" is primarily methane — a potent and dangerous greenhouse gas. It is more accurately called methane gas or fossil gas.

Our climate can’t afford methane gas

In the most recent climate report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), methane was highlighted as a particular concern “because it has an outsized impact on the climate. The gas makes up a tiny fraction of our atmosphere — CO2 levels are more than 200 times higher. But in the first 20 years after release, methane is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere.”

graph showing methane's much higher global warming potential (GWP) compared to CO2

Methane gas is burned in electricity-generating power plants and industrial processes, and for home heating, cooling and cooking. 2 out of 3 homes in Minnesota use methane gas for heating. When methane gas is burned, it releases CO2 (and other air pollutants) into the atmosphere.

Methane gas is also released directly into the atmosphere during extraction (primarily through fracking in the US). A significant amount of it also leaks into the atmosphere when it is transported by pipelines. Using satellite imagery, scientists are finding that more methane gas is leaking into the atmosphere than we have been estimating, and much of the leakage is not being counted at all.

Methane gas is also released during oil extraction, and if there isn’t a way to capture the methane, it is “flared,” or burned, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

photo of methane being "flared," or burned

So why is it viewed as “clean”?

The fossil fuel industry has spent a lot of money to sell us lies about methane gas, including promoting unsafe gas stoves, placing pro-fossil fuel ads on social media and google, and downplaying negative health effects of gas appliances.

Industry talking points also rely on comparing methane gas with coal. When burned, methane gas releases about half of the CO2 and much less of other air pollutants than coal. However, that doesn’t account for the methane gas leakage during extraction and transportation, which makes the climate impact about the same for a coal or gas plant. But comparing methane with coal is missing the point entirely; methane gas isn’t currently competing with coal, it’s competing with clean energy! And wind, solar, batteries, electric stoves and electric heat pumps can cost-effectively replace methane gas without emitting climate or other air pollutants.

photo of a masked demonstrator holding red and white "No New Gas" sign

Are there other risks to methane gas?

Methane gas is not clean, healthy or affordable.

In addition to exacerbating climate change, burning gas releases other air pollutants like nitrogen oxides that impact people’s health and environment. While NOx is damaging on its own — causing coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks, reduced lung function, and respiratory inflammation — it also reacts with other chemicals in the air to form ozone.

Burning gas in homes for home heating (gas furnaces) and cooking (gas stoves) exposes people to pollutants linked to serious health risks, including decreased lung function, asthma attacks, nervous system damage, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and death.

Two-thirds of the methane gas used in the US is extracted through fracking, a process that pollutes air and water, contributes to climate change and induces earthquakes. Check out Sierra Club’s Fracking 101 Video.

Methane gas is a danger to all communities, risking public health, environmental devastation and climate disruption. But building new gas infrastructure is a particular danger to communities of color, who bear a disproportionate burden from pipeline construction and the other consequences of fossil gas.

Fossil gas is more expensive and will be harder on MN’s pocketbooks than renewables. By retiring gas and investing heavily in renewables, we can unlock a thriving clean energy economy for the long-term. Energy from sources like wind and solar power, resources we produce right here in our own state, are already cheaper than producing energy from new fossil gas plants.

Want to dig into the data? Read the full report on fossil gas facts from the Sierra Club and MN 350

photo of people holding signs protesting against the NTEC gas plant 
Are we still investing in new methane gas infrastructure in Minnesota?

Unfortunately, yes.

Despite widespread support and movement towards 100% clean electricity in Minnesota, Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power are still proposing building NEW methane gas plants and the Rochester Public Utilities Commission is also considering building a new gas plant.

At the same time, gas utilities continue to invest in the gas system for homes and businesses. Despite announcing a climate pledge last year, CenterPoint Energy, Minnesota’s largest gas utility, is planning a $1.7 billion gas pipeline expansion (nationally) and is fighting efforts to curb fossil fuel reliance at the local level. Gas utilities like CenterPoint are also promoting fuels like “Renewable Natural Gas” as climate friendly alternatives to gas so they can justify continued investments in the gas system despite the limited opportunity and high cost.

How Can You Help?

Sierra Club is working with the Energy We Can’t Afford coalition to raise awareness about methane/fossil gas and work towards a transition from gas to clean energy. You can help by:

Climate change is here in Minnesota, and methane gas is only accelerating it. We can’t commit to more pollution and climate-harming emissions by building new fossil gas infrastructure - we need a just transition to 100% clean energy. There is no room for methane gas in our clean energy future.

photo of demonstrators holding sign saying, "Energy We Can't Afford!"

Jessica Tritsch is a Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club’s Minnesota Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign