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Oil's Invisible Stepsister: The Natural Gas Industry

Feb 23, 2007 | Posted in Essays, Progress

Natural gas, born and bred in the same Appalachian region as oil, was the energy industry’s oft-ignored and underutilized stepchild. The production and use of natural gas in the nineteenth century was centered in the Appalachian oil region, which enjoyed the exclusive utilization of the clean-burning, cost-efficient fuel for nearly a century before the highly populated East Coast cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In fact, by 1906, Pennsylvania’s natural gas was valued more than its petroleum.

Early Drilling

Early Drilling

The natural gas industry spread through various finds, most accidental, and those who were able to harness the vaporous fuel without peril used the product in a limited fashion. But before proper utilization techniques and sufficient consumer demand were developed, an incalculable amount of efficient energy was obscenely squandered in the search for oil, as natural gas was blown off into the atmosphere or carelessly flared.

First observed in Appalachia by Native Americans, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson noted “burning” gas springs during their pre-Revolutionary War travels. Natural gas was subsequently discovered accidentally in numerous sites in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania while exploring for brine (saltwater). It was not until 1821 that gas springs observed by settlers near the shores of Lake Erie in Fredonia, N.Y., gave birth to a new use for the ancient wonder. William Aaron Hart, an enterprising gunsmith, then “kicked in” a 17-foot hole in the side of the creek and eventually provided gas service through three-quarter-inch lead pipe to some local stores and buildings around 1825.

In the western Pennsylvania town of Centerville in 1840, driller John Criswell struck gas at 700 feet and used the fuel to evaporate brine from his other wells to produce salt. And in 1868, H. Jarecki and Company Petroleum Brass Works—an oil well supply firm in Erie, Pa.—became the first industrial user of natural gas in the nation fueled from an area well.

Despite these few instances of natural gas use, the industry was on the backburner once Col. Drake’s Titusville 1859 well launched oil fever in the region. But the countless oil finds also resulted in many gas discoveries. Many oil searchers were disappointed to find either massive amounts of gas in their oil wells, or only gas—considered a “waste product.” The gas was only seen useful to push the oil to the surface, but often blew uncontrollably, or worse, exploded and caught fire. Because virtually all oil wells produce gas in some amount, excess gas was occasionally found useful. For example, the notorious oil boomtown of Pithole may have been the first oil town to be illuminated by waste natural gas from area oil wells. Later, gas replaced coal-powered steam for oil-pumps in the Pennsylvania and New York State oil fields in the latter part of the nineteenth century, providing cheaper fuel to produce the crude.

Still, the gas discoveries continued and so did the effort to convert the transparent substance into a marketable product. Natural gas was first used in the Pittsburgh area at the Great Western Iron Company around 1870. In northwestern Pennsylvania, iron pipe was first used in 1871, as gas production from the Newton wells in rural Crawford County was piped five miles south to nearby Titusville for lighting, heating, and cooking. Most early metal lines were constructed of screw-type pipe, attached together by “tong gangs,” a series of workers with large pipe wrenches. Unfortunately, the pipe often leaked at the connections. But the introduction of Dresser couplings, developed and patented by former oil driller Solomon R. Dresser of Bradford, Pa., in 1887, joined individual pipes with a rubber fitting in pipe joints that reduced leakage.

In 1875, one of the first pipelines in the Pittsburgh area supplied natural gas to an iron mill in the northern suburb of Etna. In 1878, citizens in Harmony, Pa., fueled most industry in the town with the new miracle fuel. Several western Pennsylvania wells introduced natural gas for industrial establishments as a substitute for coal, principally for the iron, glass, and pottery industries due to its high and even heat content. Most significant, gas was discovered in the Pittsburgh area at Murrysville, near Monroeville, in 1878. Natural gas spread quickly in the city because it was cheaper than coal, and resulted in the added benefit of reducing industrial air pollution. Joseph N. Pew’s opened a pipeline to Pittsburgh from Murrysville in 1882. Pew’s Peoples Natural Gas Company became the first chartered natural gas firm. Soon after industrialist and genius inventor George Westinghouse, better known for his electricity achievements, brought gas to Pittsburgh’s industries and patented numerous natural gas inventions.

By 1881 in the oil region, small natural gas companies formed near wells and the spectral fuel was transported short distances. In 1885, a six-inch line connected with wells on the Speechley farm near Oil City, Pa., supplied enough gas for the communities of Oil City, Franklin, and Titusville. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, formed in 1870, was curious about the mysterious, but flammable, stepsister discovered with oil, and explored the natural gas possibilities in the 1880s. Through an “encircling” movement in Appalachia, Standard first absorbed natural gas firms throughout northwestern Pennsylvania and Buffalo, N.Y. Standard formed the National Transit Company in 1881, headquartered in Oil City, Pa., which acquired interests in numerous pipelines in the region. Standard’s perceived monopoly control in the energy industry led to National Transit transferring several of its natural gas affiliates to the newly formed “Natural Gas Trust.” Rockefeller lieutenant Daniel O’Day deplored the waste of natural gas occurring in the oil fields, and assured Rockefeller that they could pipe the volatile and invisible product safely and made pipeline management “a profession and a science.” Standard’s efforts included the “world’s longest natural gas pipeline,” a metal line from the gas fields of McKean County, Pa., to Buffalo, supervised by Calvin N. Payne, who was brought into Standard in 1885 as a veteran pipeline expert. Payne was also involved in manufacturing gas meters in Beaver Falls and Erie, Pa., and worked in developing early oil production in Texas for Standard at the turn of the century. Wall Street tycoon Henry Huttleston “Hell Hound” Rogers helped direct Standard’s Natural Gas Committee, which reorganized in 1902 to direct the company’s natural gas interests, including the creation National Fuel Gas Company that serves the region to this day. A close friend and benefactor of literary great Mark Twain, Rogers was a great philanthropist—among his many donations included a $100,000 memorial to oil pioneer Colonel Drake in Titusville. Rogers leaked many Standard Oil monopolistic practices to journalist Ida Tarbell, whose exposé crystallized the government’s challenge to the Standard Oil empire.

The availability of stronger, thinner large-diameter steel pipe reducing friction and enabling higher pressures, enabled transportation of gas over long distances. The National Tube Works in Pittsburgh was the first company to manufacture seamless steel tubing by the rotary piercing method for the pipe industry in 1895. By the end of the nineteenth century Standard’s Elizur (or E.) Strong directed Appalachian natural gas from West Virginia to Cleveland through the “Akron Ten-Inch” pipeline across the Ohio River and stretching more than 100 miles, bringing innovations in pipeline building, such as hinged sections allowing the construction of longer and wider pipes. Standard also entered the Pittsburgh market after purchasing Peoples Natural Gas in Pittsburgh from Joseph Pew in 1903. Pew would later form the Sun Oil Company (Sunoco).

Necessity being the mother of invention, elaborate gas compressors were built to increase the pressure of the gas—developed on the same principle as a bicycle pump—and pushed the product from production regions to distribution areas. In 1880, the Bradford Gas Company, transporting gas through pipelines at Rixford, Pa., put the first natural gas compressor into operation. Just before the turn of century, these internal combustion engines, powered by steam or natural gas, became widely available. They were mammoth thirty- to forty-foot-long compressing machines, with flywheels ten to twelve feet in diameter installed in “pumphouses” throughout the region. United Natural Gas of Oil City installed a 1,000-hp gas engine compressor in 1899 near Mt. Jewett, Pa., and according to the firm, it was the first such natural gas-powered compressor installed in the United States.

Among the gases and liquids removed from natural gas are methane (the main component of natural gas), propane, butane, and what became known as “natural gasolines” such as pentane and heptane. An experimental plant installed for the extraction of natural gasoline by the compression and cooling method was built in 1903-04 from oil wells almost in sight of the historic Drake well at Titusville, and was operated by Andy and William Fasenmeyer. Dr. Walter O. Snelling, an Allentown, Pa., inventor and scientist, first isolated and identified propane and butane, the two major components of liquefied petroleum (LP). Snelling first supplied heat and light to the home of John Gahring in 1912 in Waterford, Pa., a few miles south of Erie.

Despite the early wastefulness of the fuel, the oil region used natural gas to help pump oil, power industry, cook food, and heat homes more than seventy years before the American East Coast. Despite periodic shortages, the natural gas industry in the Appalachian oil region provided its own supply from its own wells until the late 1940s until supplies from the Southwest became available.

This information was adapted from The Natural Gas Industry in Appalachia: A History from the First Discovery to the Maturity of the Industry, by David A. Waples published by McFarland Publishing Company (2005).