Natural Gas: A Greenwashed Killer

Liquified natural gas is low-carbon, clean, responsible, and will transition the world to net zero emission. Or so says ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, fossil fuel companies and their supporters.  The term “greenwashing” was first used by Jay Westerveld in 1986 to draw attention to misleading claims by the hotel industry to their customers; saving the environment was a false cover for promoting the reuse of towels when the primary motive was to cut costs. Now, as consumers become more drawn to eco-conscious products, greenwashing can be seen in labeling of products, advertisements, brand ambassadors, even where the product is being sold. Greenwashing is found in meaningless and made up  certificates, packaging design, and indefinite terms like “clean” and “sustainable.” Greenwashing plays on the consumer’s goodwill and desire to improve their consumption habits by tricking the customer with incomplete or misleading information. Natural gas and liquified natural gas have been greenwashed.

Under the sand and rocks of Qatar, beneath the snow of Russia, covered by the tall trees of the United States and Canada lies natural gas buried in the ground. The name “natural gas” already draws images of something pure and clean. Natural gas doesn’t appear to be toxic chemicals, factory smog, or carcinogens – it sounds fresh and healthy, like the sun and the mountains and the rivers. The same is not imagined for natural crude oil or natural coal (though natural gas, crude oil, and coal are all environmentally destructive fossil fuels). Natural gas is fracked by drilling holes deep into the ground and releasing hazardous chemicals to break up the soil of the Earth, which will release a composition of gasses in exchange. A volume of these invisible gasses will escape into the atmosphere during this process, many contributing to global climate change. A much larger volume will be collected and routed to a refinery which will release the gasses to a liquefaction facility. Liquified natural gas “LNG” is natural gas cooled to a liquid state which makes transporting natural gas cheaper and more efficient.

Rather than being composed of carbon dioxide, natural gas is largely made up of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide during a 20-year period. This aspect of natural gas is greenwashed: companies and politicians claim natural gas as the key to reducing carbon emissions while concealing how methane in natural gas is even worse than carbon dioxide in coal or oil. Not only this, but the greenhouse gas emissions brought by fracking, processing, and shipping natural gas and LNG are not null and should be considered in the environmental footprint.

But before the fracking, processing, and shipping of natural gas can commence, infrastructure must be built: highways and roads, refining and liquefaction facilities, and massive pipelines will be constructed to accommodate the fossil fuel. Fracking sites are located on natural habitats and the construction of these projects devastates local ecosystems. Natural gas and LNG pipelines often run through crucial habitats, destroying ecosystems from trees to soil to waterways. Since its construction, Puget Sound Energy’s LNG pipeline, for example, has warmed the waters of a vital salmon estuary and inhibited the hatching of salmon eggs, further endangering the population of the key-stone species.

Indigenous people of North America are continuously disregarded in all aspects of building, fracking, processing, shipping, and burning natural gas. Proximity to man camps – temporary housing built to support an influx of workers used in fracking and construction – is statistically associated with higher rates of violence against Indigenous women, including human trafficking and murder. Furthermore, facilities and pipelines are continuously built on Indigenous land; the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe has spent years battling Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG to protect their sacred lands. It is the United States federal government’s legal responsibility to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against an Indigenous person by a non-Indigenous perpetrator. However, these cases are often futile in securing justice for Indigenous people, a result frequently attributed to unconcerned prosecutors and federal government.

Pipelines and processing facilities are systematically placed near marginalized communities; and it could be taking years of life away from vulnerable residents. “Sacrifice zones” was a term originally coined to refer to the communities which were subject to radiation and hazardous chemicals as a result of the United States’ mission to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. Today, sacrifice zones are considered areas where inhabitants are disproportionately exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals and pollutants. These zones are often placed adjacent to Black, Latin, Indigenous, or low-income communities and it is a deadly franchise of racism and classism. Sacrifice zones can occur when local officials look to attract large corporations and industry to their region with the intention of creating jobs and bringing in tax revenues. The elected officials must then make decisions about where to locate highly polluting industries: the obvious choice for those who rely on public opinion is the neighborhood with the most silenced voices and the most diminished power structures.

The natural gas and LNG industry is similar to many other highly polluting industries in this regard. Counties whose social vulnerability index indicates they are in the 75th percentile or higher were on average 67 percent denser with natural gas pipelines than counties with a social vulnerability index in the lowest quarter. This data shows that natural gas pipelines are more likely to be placed in socially vulnerable areas. Not only does runoff from natural gas processing facilities poison waterways, toxic air pollutants – benzene and n-hexane to name a few – are known or associated with cancer, birth defects, asthma, and more.

Natural gas is also dangerously explosive (hence the smell inserted to alert consumers that the gas is on or leaking) as detailed in the Rachel Carson Council’s comprehensive report Blast Zone that helped defeat the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

It is clear that natural gas is a killer for both humans and the environment, so why do companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell invest in it? Natural gas is one thing that many safer alternatives are not: it is immediately affordable. Fracking fossil fuels has become cheaper and cheaper over the years, and the workforce has already been educated for the job . Fossil fuel companies have tricked customers and world leaders into believing natural gas is good for the environment and will help them achieve goals of net zero emissions. As a result, policies such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Section 45Q in the Inflation Reduction Act, have made many natural gas projects eligible for billions of dollars in tax credits and loan guarantees. These financial incentives have made natural gas preferable to both fossil fuel corporations and consumers.

The greenwashing of natural gas is dangerous to people and the planet. Natural gas contributes to global climate change and is detrimental to human health. Petitions like this, and movements to impede natural gas infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Alaska LNG Project, or Puget Sound Energy’s LNG pipeline and facility are growing in popularity as more people become aware of the devastating impacts of natural gas. The era of natural gas has to end, and it starts with informing the public of the truth. We must use our voices to eradicate natural gas and the greenwashing which defends it: for our planet and for our lives.

Meghan Tinnea – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Georgetown University

RCC Fellow Meghan Tinnea is a sophomore at Georgetown University with majors in Science, Technology, and International Affairs with a concentration in Energy and Environment and double minors in International Development and Environmental Studies. After graduating, she sees herself contributing to the fight against climate change as an environmental consultant for corporate and legislative decisions, guided by a lens of intersectionality and equity. Meghan’s history in environmental activism traces back to her freshman year of high school, where she became involved in climate policy and education. At Georgetown, she became President of Georgetown’s Climate Justice Club, and founded a local chapter of Sunrise Movement.