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Natural Gas History

The History of Natural Gas

Natural gas has been around for millions of years, in fact, sometimes natural gas escaping from the earth would ignite leading to a fire from the earth. This was thought of as a divine or supernatural thing until more recently when we have harnessed the power of natural gas to use as a source of energy.

Around 1785, natural gas produced from coal was used to light streetlights and houses in Britain. This came to America in 1816, but it wasn’t the naturally occurring gas that we use today. This was manufactured, so it was less efficient.

In 1821, the first well specifically to obtain natural gas for energy was dug. This natural gas was predominantly used as a source of light because it was difficult to transport very far. However, after the invention of the Bunsen burner in 1885, people realized they could use gas for cooking and heating.

In the early 1900s pipelines for natural gas started to be built. This allowed natural gas to be transported for people to use in their homes for heating and cooking. Instead of coal that wasn’t as efficient, natural gas in its natural state allowed homes to be heated for cheaper.

Natural gas is now being obtained cheaper and easier than ever. The natural gas industry has existed for over 150 years in this country, and it has been growing and improving ever since it started. Natural gas is now often seen as the fuel of choice in our country and throughout the world. 

The Shift from Coal to Natural Gas

Multiple oil wells

This summer, for the first time ever, natural gas surpassed coal as the number one energy source in the US. Natural gas has been gaining in popularity across the country for years, but for the first time the energy industry is really facing the possibility that natural gas could completely replace coal as the US's dominant energy source. Now the industry is wondering whether the spike in natural gas usage is just a temporary fad, or a real glimpse at the future of energy in the US.

Coal is a finite resource, which means that the end of its use has always been inevitable: it's just been a question of when. But the recent turn away from coal has much less to do with the coal one day running out than it does with coal not stacking up to natural gas in terms of cost, cleanliness and efficiency. As more homes and businesses discover that natural gas provides significant savings in energy costs, demand for gas has gone up, while demand for the more expensive coal has gone down. Natural gas is also significantly easier to collect and store than coal, with fewer risks to the workers involved, making gas not just cheaper to use but cheaper to produce, too.

The big shift, however, comes from the environmental impact. As protecting the environment climbs on the US's list of priorities, harsh strictures are being put in place to prevent the release of chemicals and other harmful byproducts into the air. Coal is a messy, inefficient fuel that produces ash, smoke and greenhouse gases, and coal plants that cannot meet regulations demanding they clean up their act are shutting down. As a clean, efficient fuel source with almost no harmful byproducts, natural gas is picking up the slack to handle America's energy needs without damaging the environment.

How Natural Gas is Formed

Where natural gas is found underground

Natural gas is responsible for approximately 23 percent of all energy produced in the world. It is used to heat the homes of millions of people across the globe, but very few people take the time to understand what natural gas is and where it comes from.

Natural gas is an odorless and colorless substance composed of methane, ethane and propane. Carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen are the additional impurities that comprise a smaller percentage of natural gas’ composition.

There are two general types of natural gas. Biogenic gas originates from marshes, bogs and landfills, where methanogenic organisms manufacture the gas. Thermogenic gas is what comes from deep beneath the earth, where buried organic material breaks down under high temperature and pressure.

The natural gas that heats your home comes from deep beneath the earth, under several layers of rocks. The remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago were left buried under layers of rock and soil, before heat and pressure converted that matter into natural gas and petroleum.

To be more specific, natural gas is the result of methanogenic bacteria producing methane while in the process of decomposing organic material, coupled with the decomposition of kerogen. These two actions combine to complete catagenesis, the process that produces both petroleum and natural gas.

Once the gas has been created, it will attempt to migrate to a new location. The layers of the earth are molten rock, and those rocks can act as sponges for natural gas. Certain types of rocks within these layers contain large pores that act as storage units for natural gas.

To access these natural gases, companies drill hundreds of feet into the earth, pumping the gas into pipes. When piped to homes via boilers, furnaces or water heaters, this gas can serve to power ovens, gas-heated clothes dryers, central heating and cooling and more.

Natural Gas Exploration Process

Oil well in open field

In our busy everyday lives it can be easy to ignore the complex processes that allow us to complete our day to day tasks. You may have never asked yourself before, but where would we be without natural gas? Although it may not seem relevant to your life, natural gas is one of the most valuable energy resources because it is used in a variety of ways. Without natural gas we would have less electric power, fewer heating sources and more polluted transportation.

Natural Gas Exploration Process

It is interesting to look at the exploration of natural gas, which begins as geologists examine the earth’s surface in the hopes of finding where gas or petroleum deposits exist. Thanks to advanced technologies, the search has become much easier in the last 20 years. Often times, natural gas reservoirs are characterized by anticline slopes and domes. Mapping and surveying the land for these formations combined with knowledge of particular rock formations makes finding natural gas much easier.

Another aid in natural gas exploration came with seismology, a study of how energy moves through the earth in seismic waves, interacting differently with different types of underground formations. The study was first used to measure earthquakes, but eventually geologists began using the interactions to create artificial vibrations on the earth’s surface. After analyzing the vibrations they can better understand what lies beneath and more accurately determine if a reservoir has been located.

Seismology is used for both onshore and offshore exploration. Onshore seismic vibrations are detected by using a machine called a geophone which is embedded into the ground. The geophone gathers data and sends it to a seismic recording truck to be recorded and further interpreted. A similar process is used for offshore exploration but rather than a seismic truck, hydrophones are used to detect the underwater seismic waves. The hydrophones are towed behind a ship and send bursts of compressed air through the water that can travel through Earth’s crust and create a seismic reflection.

While the process of finding natural gas reservoirs is both a scientific and intricate process, it is one worth understanding; without it we may be at a loss of many of our daily resources.

Natural Gas History and Use

Natural gas burning from ground

Natural gas has been around for millions of years. Although it hasn’t been used for energy until fairly recently, its existence was always known although not necessarily understood.

Natural gas first came to light as blazing fires underneath of the earth’s crust which puzzled ancient civilizations. One of the most famous natural gas fires can be traced back to ancient Greece in 1000 B.C. On Mount Parnassus, a livestock herdsman discovered flames rising from cracks in the rock. The Greeks then believed this to be a sign from the gods and built a temple around the flame.

These natural gas fires or “burning springs” popped up in other regions like India and Persia and were also embraced as divine symbols. In 500 B.C., the Chinese began to utilize these natural gas fires for purposes beyond spirituality. In places where the natural gas was leaking from the surface of the earth, pipelines were constructed from bamboo shoots in order to move the gas. The Chinese then used natural gas to boil water from the sea in order to make it drinkable.

In approximately 1785, Great Britain became the first country to use natural gas for commercial purposes. This natural gas was created from coal and used to light houses and streetlamps. New England tried to utilize natural gas for similar purposes around the same time, but this manufactured gas was much less efficient than the type that comes from underground.

It was not until 1859 when Colonel Edwin Drake was digging a well around Lake Erie and struck both oil and natural gas that the natural gas industry really took off in America. From Drake’s well, a pipeline was constructed, running over five miles to Titusville, Pennsylvania. The construction of this particular pipeline was pivotal because it proved that natural gas could be transported securely and efficiently from its underground source and used for everyday purposes.

Natural Gas Regulation

Natural gas regulations

Over the last 30 years, dramatic changes have occurred in the natural gas industry, causing the need for different regulations in the United States. The different aspects of the natural gas industry have all been regulated at some point. When the natural gas industry started to take off during the mid-1800s, natural gas was manufactured mostly from coal. While during this time regulating the natural gas industry was fairly simple with local governments overseeing monopoly regulation, the industry has continued to develop, making it more difficult to regulate.


Throughout the 1900s, the mobility of natural gas increased and it was impossible for local governments to control. While state government ordered regulation for a while, the US federal government became directly involved in the regulation of interstate natural gas when they passed the Natural Gas Act in 1938. This act gave the Federal Power Commissions ruling over the natural gas sales regulation. They specified that no new interstate pipeline could be built to deliver gas into a market already served by another pipeline.

In response to the 1970s natural gas shortage, Congress passed the Natural Gas Policy Act. This piece of legislation set maximum lawful prices for the wellhead sale of natural gas and broke down barriers between intrastate and interstate markets in order to create a single national natural gas market. Under the Natural Gas Policy Act, the deregulation of natural gas sale prices at the wellhead had begun. The deregulation of wellhead prices was completed in 1989 when Congress passed the Natural Gas Wellhead Decontrol Act that appealed all remaining regulated prices on wellhead sales. Since 1992, pipelines have been required to separate their transportation and sales services so customers are given a choice about providers for their gas sales, transportation, and storage services.

The natural gas industry has seen many ups and downs throughout the course of regulation. After starting with no regulation, having many rules and boundaries, then back to deregulation, it is apparent that the need for regulating legislation continues to change as the market itself evolves.