Earth, Energy


Fossil Fuels


In the world of fossil fuels, natural gas is often the overlooked ugly duckling. It gets lumped in with oil, as in “oil and gas industry”, even though the discussion usually centers upon oil. It does not help that gasoline, which is derived from oil, is shortened to “gas”. In many people’s mind, the “gas” in “oil and gas” refers to gasoline, and not natural gas. However, natural gas has much to offer as an energy source that makes it preferable to other forms of fossil fuels. It burns much cleaner than coal or oil, and it produces far less carbon dioxide for each unit of energy. Its simple chemical nature makes it a much better source to use in high efficiency fuel cells than either coal or gas. As a usable energy source, natural gas really has only one stumbling block, but it is a major one: it is hard to transport and store. If the transport or storage system is not completely sealed, natural gas will leak. Further, both systems must be able to withstand high pressures in order to compact the natural gas into a reasonable space. These problems have kept natural gas from widespread usage throughout history, even though its existence has been known about for a long time. Like coal and oil, natural gas has been used for several millennia. The earliest records of this date back to 200 B.C., when the Chinese developed a crude system of bamboo pipes to transport gas to burners to evaporate brine to make salt. However, it was not until large-scale pipe systems were developed in the 1800’s that natural gas began to see extended use. Initially, it was used for lighting in homes and buildings. The increased production of electricity in the late 1800’s led to a decline in this usage, although there became a growing demand throughout the 1900’s for its use to heat homes, water, and cook. Most of this usage of natural gas was near the wells that produced it due to the lack of long-range pipelines or transport. In 1925, the first all-welded pipeline over 200 miles in length was built, running from Louisiana to Texas. The growth in such pipeline networks and the cheap price of natural gas led to an expansion in its use. Between the turn of the century and 1970, usage and production of natural gas increased fifty-fold. However, production of natural gas in the U.S. peaked in 1973, and by 1980, we began to import natural gas from other countries. Today, about 15 percent of our natural gas comes from other countries, mostly through pipelines from Canada.