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Striking Oil
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Striking Oil
Chapter Four: Natural Gas

Just as the eventual value of oil was underestimated in the 1850s, so was the potential of natural gas. Invisible, the gas often seeped unknown from oil reservoirs below ground. Much more combustible than oil, gas did not remain unappreciated for long. Little could be done with gas, however, until technology was developed. Most often oil developers considered natural gas as waste and burned it off.
A derrick is connected to a metal tank by a series of pipes. Visible in the photo, escaping from the well and the tank, is a smoky mist.
A derrick is connected to a metal tank by a series of pipes. Visible in the...

From the beginning of oil exploration, speculators knew that gas pockets often occurred near petroleum. Wells often produced exploding spouts of oil, called gushers, caused by the underground pressure of natural gas. Gushers attracted speculators and gained a place in the American oil culture. In the name of efficiency, oilmen began to explore ways of using and making money from the supplies of natural gas.

Experiments with natural gas supplies pre-date Edwin L. Drake's petroleum well discovery in 1859. The first well dug specifically to obtain natural gas in the United States was drilled at Fredonia, on the banks of Canadaway Creek in Chautauqua County, New York, in 1821. Drilled to a depth of 27 feet, the well initially produced enough gas to light 30 burners and to illuminate a local inn. The well was drilled deeper, to about 70 feet, and produced enough gas to light Fredonia's streets and public buildings. Ten years later, developers in Erie, Pennsylvania, used wooden pipes to bring natural gas from a spring to be burned in a lighthouse. It was just a matter of time before the scale of gas industry development caught up with that of petroleum.

Science and invention led the way for the development of natural gas as a reliable fuel source. The markerSpeechley Gas Pool Well in 1885 gave geologists one of the first opportunities to explore, as did the markerMurrysville Gas Well established in 1878. E.W. Claypoole was an expert on the stratigraphy and rock formations in Pennsylvania. In 1888 he became interested in natural gas as a commodity and provided the following observation:

"The excitement over the wonderful supply of gaseous fuel which began about four years ago and has risen to fever-heat will form one of the most remarkable events in the history of economic geology in North America... The wild speculation - the mania which marked [petroleum] the years 1860-1865 was repeated on a somewhat smaller scale in 1885 and 1886. Foremost among these favored spots is Pittsburgh near which have been developed surprising quantity of this cheap and clean fuel."

Claypoole stressed that gas could be developed for efficient and economical use. Well-known geologist I.C. White lent him support and argued that gas supplies could be reached along underground structures known as anticlines, themselves caused by upheavals of gas.

While scientists debated his anticlinal theory for many years, White further formed his ideas by observing actual wells in West Virginia. These insights, combined with new developments in the technology of gas collection, led to further exploration and natural gas research, including the markerLeidy Natural Gas Boom in 1950. Scientific experiments also led to a new product, liquefied petroleum, otherwise known as propane and the beginning of the markerLP Gas Industry. Science, and geology in particular, played crucial roles in the development of oil, natural gas, LP gas, and other byproducts.

Today, most energy analysts believe that gas, a clean-burning fuel, is one of the best hopes for replacing coal-burning electricity plants. Vast gas reserves remain untapped both domestically and internationally.

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