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Should it be called “natural gas” or “methane”?

Should it be called “natural gas” or “methane”?

We are pleased to announce a new study of Americans’ perceptions of natural gas. Natural gas is composed of 70-90% methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to global warming. The American public perceives “natural gas” much more favorably (76% favorable) than other fossil fuels like oil (51% ) or coal (39%). They also believe natural gas is much less harmful to human health than is coal or oil. 

How much does natural gas benefit from its name, which includes the word “natural”? To answer this question, we conducted an experiment to investigate the public’s emotions and associations regarding the terms “natural gas” and “methane.” We randomly assigned respondents to one of four conditions in which each respondent was asked to rate their positive and negative feelings (affect) about one of the following four terms: “natural gas,” “natural methane gas,” “methane,” or “methane gas.” 

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.”

Finally, the pattern of feelings about the four different terms is similar for both Democrats and Republicans, although overall, Democrats have relatively more negative feelings about all four terms.

Next, we asked respondents: “When you think of [natural gas / natural methane gas / methane / methane gas], what is the first [then second, then third] word or phrase that comes to your mind?” Each participant could provide up to three such associations. 

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.

This experiment found that the American public has very different feelings about and associations to “natural gas” than they do to “methane” even though natural gas is composed primarily of methane. “Methane” and “methane gas” generate much stronger negative feelings and associations to pollution than does “natural gas” and this effect is consistent across political parties. These findings indicate that the terms used to communicate about this fossil fuel can have dramatically different effects.