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“Natural” gas and the new climate denialism

Climate denial is not just about pretending climate change isn't real—it's also about slowing down the momentum towards real climate solutions.

December 2, 2022

4-minute read

Did you know that natural gas produces fewer emissions and air pollutants than any other fuel? And not only is it low-emission, but natural gas is also budget-friendly and virtually inexhaustible! You can sleep easy tonight knowing that Canada’s abundant natural gas resources are a sustainable energy choice that will power us for centuries to come.

These comforting “facts” come courtesy of the Fuelling Canada campaign, which was launched in November 2021 by the Canadian Gas Alliance (CGA). In many respects, Fuelling Canada is a traditional marketing campaign from an industry association promoting its product. It includes all the typical trappings of modern advertising, from the slick website to the sponsored stories in the Globe & Mail to the claims about corporate social responsibility.

But there’s also something more insidious at work here: climate denialism.

Not outright climate denial, of course, which the CGA’s campaign studiously avoids. On the contrary, the campaign places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It engages instead in what Seth Klein and Shannon Daub describe as the “new climate denialism”, a term to describe a superficial acknowledgement of the climate crisis but a denial of the structural changes necessary to address it.

In this case, the reality is that “natural” gas, which really ought to be called “methane gas” given its composition, is a fossil fuel that produces significant greenhouse gas emissions when produced and consumed, just like coal and oil. And while gas plays a significant role in Canada’s energy system today, it is largely incompatible with the net-zero economy we need to achieve by mid-century. From a climate perspective, we must transition away from natural gas and toward exclusively zero-emission renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro power as quickly as possible.

The Fuelling Canada campaign has drawn the ire of climate activists and is the target of a recent false advertising complaint by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (doctors are also concerned about the human health impacts of natural gas combustion in homes, but that’s another story). It remains to be seen whether the gas industry will be forced to rectify its false and misleading statements or whether it, like the oil industry, will be permitted to continue spreading self-serving, climate-denying disinformation. Either way, claims about “clean” and “natural” gas are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg when it comes to climate disinformation from fossil fuel producers.

Oil companies like Shell and Exxon have known since the 1970s that their products were likely to cause global warming. Recent investigations of confidential internal documents have found that these companies understood with startling clarity how emissions from fossil fuel combustion would raise temperatures and ultimately lead to sea level rise and destructive ecological consequences. Instead of warning the public or adapting their business models, oil companies instead buried the results, doubled down on oil production, and engaged in decades-long disinformation campaigns to deny climate change.

Times have changed. Today, outright climate denial is rare, even from the oil industry. The new climate denialism has come to replace it.

The front page of Shell’s website boasts of the company’s commitment to becoming “a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.” Ditto for ExxonMobil. Closer to home, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents the domestic oil industry, states unequivocally that “climate change is a serious and real issue”. The Canadian oil major Suncor recently appointed a “Chief Climate Officer” to demonstrate just how seriously it takes the crisis.

What are these companies actually doing when it comes to climate change? In a recent assessment, Oil Change International found that the climate plans of Shell, Exxon and every other major global oil company were “grossly insufficient”. In spite of their own net-zero pledges, all of these companies continue “to search for new [oil] fields and put forward new projects for investment.” Related research in Canada has found that all of our domestic oil companies have similarly insufficient climate plans. Suncor, for its part, “does not plan to reduce its oil extraction any time soon” and the Canada Energy Regulator forecasts that fossil fuel production will remain near current levels through 2050.

Greenwashing is hardly a new phenomenon, but the speed at which fossil fuel companies have pivoted to embracing climate action—in name, if not in practice—has made climate misinformation all the more difficult to root out. In this new paradigm, the fossil fuel industry presents itself not as an obstacle to climate action but instead as the very champion of a cleaner future. In doing so, the industry has worked to shape the climate policy narrative away from the necessity of transformative change and toward an incrementalist vision that protects the power and profitability of the oil and gas industry.

This more nuanced form of denial is evident in the industry’s response to the federal government’s proposed oil and gas emissions cap. In CAPP’s submission to the government, for example, the industry association does not oppose the policy in principle—CAPP believes that “lower emission energy systems are good for society”, after all—but it emphasizes that the government must be “pragmatic” and “realistic” in its approach. What that means, for CAPP, is a policy to curtail emissions that does not actually curtail the amount of oil and gas being produced.

To be clear, contending with the urgency and severity of the climate crisis requires a near-total phase-out of all fossil fuels in the coming decades. Production declines are absolutely necessary and Canada’s proposed oil and gas emissions cap, if well-designed, can achieve exactly that. But it will require contending with disinformation that sows doubt about the need for transformative change and offers the fossil fuel industry as a solution to, rather than a cause of, the climate crisis.

So the next time you hear about “clean-burning”, “natural” gas as the fuel of the future, take a pause.

For more on the new climate denialism and the political economy of the fossil fuel industry, see Regime of Obstruction: How corporate power blocks energy democracy, edited by William K. Carroll and published by AU Press in 2021, especially chapter 8, “Episodes in the New Climate Denialism,” by Shannon Daub, Gwendolyn Blue, Lise Rajewicz and Zoë Yunker.

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