Pierce Transit – Don’t Fall for Greenwashing!

Pierce Transit recently posted to their website about a new partnership for “carbon neutral, responsibly sourced natural gas” and we were compelled to write them the following letter.

Dear Pierce County Transit,

First of all, we want to thank you for providing us with public transportation options and striving to improve them all the time. We are very grateful! We know that a robust public transit system is a huge part of the solution to solving many of our environmental and climate related problems. As I’m sure you know, a large portion of our carbon emissions in WA state, around 40%, come from transportation. If we could get more people onto buses and trains we would be going in the right direction.

We also understand why you would move to cut down on diesel emissions, and their associated particulate matter, from your bus fleet by switching to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). After all, Tacoma’s air quality was so bad for a while it didn’t meet EPA standards due to the particulate matter pollution (blamed largely on wood stoves). Everyone can agree that natural gas, some 70% of which comes from fracking (at least in the US) is cleaner than diesel at the point of combustion. 

If the entire life cycle of natural gas is taken into account, however, from a climate perspective it can be just as bad as, if not worse than, coal. This is because of leaks in drilling or fracking, pipeline distribution, and end use processes. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is, over a twenty year period, at least 86 times worse than carbon dioxide (what’s emitted from all fossil fuel combustion) as a heat trapping gas. Many scientists have said that one of the most effective things we can do to lessen the climate crisis is to drastically cut back on methane emissions, since they are so effective at trapping heat yet degrade or are removed from the atmosphere (into CO2 unfortunately) more rapidly than CO2.

I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that you’ve recently announced your partnership with some “Responsibly Sourced Gas” companies to fuel your fleet (80% of which runs on CNG). And we appreciate that you say it “still [has] an environmental impact.” If we have to use methane gas, minimizing its impacts along its entire life cycle is definitely praiseworthy. Unfortunately the science on carbon offsetting, which your new supplier does, says it doesn’t really work. We need to stop carbon from getting into the atmosphere at all.

Methane gas, unless captured as a byproduct of our waste management systems (better to capture fugitive emissions and burn them), can never be “clean” as these companies claim. The fundamental problem with all hydrocarbons like methane, diesel and petroleum is that they are made of carbon. There’s no way around that. Methane has one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. Gasoline, which is a mix of hydrocarbons, has 4-12 carbon atoms per molecule. Diesel, also a mix, has 12-20 carbons per molecule. Methane is not as energy dense as the other fuels, so you have to burn more molecules of it to achieve the same thing, thus there are no carbon savings.

We worry that the greenwashing going on in the fossil fuel industry will only cause further confusion and delay in switching to truly renewable energy sources. Natural gas was proposed as a “bridge fuel” to renewables back in the 1970’s, so it’s nothing new. And it’s still a fossil fuel.

That is why we need to completely decarbonize our modes of transportation. We think it is so amazing that Pierce Transit already has electric buses, comprising 5% of the fleet! And we hope that number will rapidly increase, with electric buses replacing all other models. Wenatchee is piloting an inspiring rapid bus charging system and we hope you’ll follow those results closely.

Do you already have plans to electrify the fleet? What is the timeline? We looked on the Pierce Transit website but did not find any further information.

Thank you for providing public transportation here in Pierce County and please let us know how we can support your efforts to move your fleet towards true carbon-free operations!


350 Tacoma