Report: The Myth of “Renewable Natural Gas” for Building Decarbonization

A new report highlights the gas industry’s deceptive efforts to keep our homes and buildings tethered to gas combustion.

Buildings in New York City.

A new report by Earthjustice and Sierra Club highlights the gas industry’s deceptive efforts to keep our homes and buildings tethered to gas combustion. Buildings account for nearly 40% of climate pollution in the United States, with much of that driven by the burning of dirty fossil gas for heating and hot water.

There is growing consensus that electrifying buildings and using electric appliances like heat pumps and induction stoves is the clearest path to tackling their pollution. And while today we may think it’s natural to burn gas to heat our homes or cook, doing so creates dangerous levels of indoor air pollution.

Children are particularly at risk, as recent studies show that children growing up in homes with gas stoves have a 42% increased risk of developing asthma symptoms. Switching to zero-emission appliances would protect our health by eliminating the indoor gas combustion linked to heart problems and respiratory diseases like childhood asthma.

Because buildings last for many decades, avoiding gas infrastructure and appliances in new construction is crucial to avoid locking in reliance on fossil fuels. As such, many policymakers across the U.S. and globally see electrification as the future of buildings. By early 2020, more than 30 cities and counties in the U.S. passed policies requiring or supporting all-electric new construction.

But gas utilities rely on maintaining and expanding fuel delivery infrastructure to buildings to generate revenue, and view electrification as an existential crisis.

What is FGA? Fossil gas alternatives, often marketed as “renewable” natural gas. They fall into two categories: biogas and synthetic gas.

Different feedstocks and production methods for either of these alternatives require trade-offs around cost, supply, and social and ecological impact

The industry’s response has been to pitch fossil gas alternatives (“FGAs”) — often marketed as “renewable” natural gas — as an alternative to building electrification. They argue that existing gas infrastructure can continue to operate by replacing today’s fuel with a range of biologically and synthetically derived non-fossil gaseous fuels.

This report examines the potential for FGAs to decarbonize buildings and refutes the claim that FGAs are a viable alternative to building electrification.

The key conclusions are:

  • The potential supply of FGAs is a small fraction of gas demand. The gas industry’s own research found that after two decades of ramping up supply and production, FGAs could only replace 13% of the existing demand for fossil gas.
  • Replacing fossil gas with FGAs is extremely costly. High production costs mean FGAs range from 4 to 17 times more expensive than fossil gas.
  • FGAs have a mixed environmental record. Facilities where FGAs are produced can exacerbate air and water pollution impacts in nearby communities, and intentionally produced methane can increase greenhouse gas emissions.
  • FGAs perpetuate the health impacts of combustion. Burning FGAs in homes, offices, and commercial spaces has the same issues inherent to any combustion-based fuels.

The report finds that due to the limits of biogas and synthetic gas, it should be used to decarbonize sectors where there are few or no lower-cost mitigation solutions. Buildings do not meet these criteria. Nevertheless, gas system incumbents are embarking on a coordinated strategy advocating for the use of FGAs in homes and buildings.

Through electrification, decarbonizing our buildings is also an opportunity to reduce legacy sources of indoor air pollution.

The second half of the report turns to gas industry incumbents’ efforts to fight electrification through a well-funded campaign to sway public opinion — often through fake grassroots organizations — and their misleading public rhetoric on the potential use of FGAs as an alternative building electrification.

An internal set of American Gas Association meeting notes from March 2018 shows the industry determined FGAs can be used to “mitigate the opposition’s fervor” to phase out the burning of gas due to climate concerns. Another internal document makes clear an awareness of FGAs’ limits, coming from an industry source:

“[In my opinion], RNG will not sustain our industry at its present size.”

In another instance, a board member for a gas industry advocacy group told The Guardian on the record:

“Dairy biogas is way too expensive” to use in home or businesses — five to 10 times more expensive than fossil gas. “It doesn’t pencil out and it doesn’t make all that much sense from an environmental standpoint. It’s a pipe dream.”

Policymakers must see beyond the gas industry’s rhetoric around FGAs to the reality of their high costs, limited supply, and environmental risk.

The Report

Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Myth of “Renewable Natural Gas” for Building Decarbonization (PDF)
Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Myth of “Renewable Natural Gas” for Building Decarbonization (Text)

Executive Summary

Part 1:
The appropriate — and limited — role for lower-carbon gas alternatives on the road to decarbonization

  1. Climate goals require a gas phaseout
  2. Different sources of fossil gas alternatives
  3. Not all fossil gas alternatives are environmentally beneficial
  4. Fossil gas alternatives have no clear path to fully decarbonizing the gas grid
  5. Low-carbon gases are significantly more expensive than fossil gas
  6. Given their limited supply and high costs, fossil gas alternatives are best-suited for use in harder-to-decarbonize segments of society

Part 2:
How the reality of fossil gas alternatives differs from gas and industry rhetoric

  1. Fossil gas alternatives help preserve the gas utility business model in the face of electrification
  2. How the gas industry seeks to short-circuit building electrification
  3. Industry claims about fossil gas alternatives
  4. Despite what it’s telling customers, the gas industry knows the shortfalls of fossil gas alternatives

Benefits of building electrification should not be obscured by a fog of gas industry misinformation


Report Authors:

Resources on Building Electrification

Californians Want to Stop Burning Gas in Their Homes

In a new poll, 70% of Californians said they prefer efficient electric appliances powered by clean electricity instead of fossil gas.

SoCalGas’ Reckless Strategy to Keep California Tied to Combustion

Through a network of front-groups, lobbyists, and PR firms, SoCalGas is funding and coordinating a misinformation campaign to greenwash gas and stoke local opposition to building electrification.

Coming Soon to Your Home: Cleaner Air and Climate Action

Berkeley’s historic transition is poised to have ripple effects among cities also looking to cut gas as a source of emissions.

Media Inquiries

Zoe Woodcraft Communications Strategist, Earthjustice
(818) 606-7509