Reflections on the Natural Gas Revolution That's Already Begun

For better or worse, previously unknown reserves and a new ability to access them is transforming North American energy policy.

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Since the late 1990s, American landscapes have become dotted with a small forest of shale gas wells -- 13,000 new ones a year, or about 35 a day, according to the American Petroleum Institute. In the past decade, this steady stream of development has become a gusher as nearly half the country has staked claim to these energy riches. In 2000, the USA had 342,000 natural gas wells. By 2010, more than 510,000 were in place -- a 49% jump -- according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Twenty states have shale gas wells, so-named because they tap rock layers that harbor the gas in shale formations (with names such as Marcellus, Utica, Barnett). The bulk of the drilling has come since 2006, according to the EIA. Wherever drilling happens, life changes. - USA Today


In a Pennsylvania town called Titusville, home to 5,600 people and Walmart Supercenter #5360, an entrepreneur named Edwin L. Drake once dug a hole that changed the world. The year was 1859. Thanks to recent innovations, kerosene could be extracted from petroleum and distilled. But where would we get petroleum? Historically it had been collected from shallow pools where it bubbled naturally to the surface. Hearing rumors that salt miners in Titusville were complaining of oil spoiling their digs, Drake set out for the town, where he paid laborer to dig. His laborers started out with a metal pipe that they hammered into the ground by hand. At 39 feet, they hit bedrock, so they procured a steam engine to drive a larger hammer. Deeper and deeper they drilled, but for months nothing happened. Drake was nearly bankrupted, but he pressed on. And one day they struck oil. Drake Well was the first profitable oil well in America, bestowing a fortune on the world's first oil millionaire, and kicked off a worldwide search for petroleum.

That's value added.


The PBS documentary Extreme Oil tells the story of a town near Titusville, where another well struck oil. Unlike Drake's Well, it petered out in months rather than years. The boom and bust was epic. "A parcel of land that had sold for $2 million in 1865 was auctioned off for $4.37 soon after," the documentary stated.


On a Sunday in early summer of 1892, heavy rain washed out a dam on Oil Creek, flooding Titusville and causing a leak in the petroleum tanks of nearby Oil City. Petroleum floated on top of Oil Creek in a visible slick. Suddenly an explosion rocked the scene. A second and a third followed, engulfing the town in flames, sending its residents fleeing into the countryside, killing 60 people, and injuring hundreds. It was devastation the likes of which the locals had never seen.


There have been many catastrophic petroleum disasters over the years. The Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster are perhaps the best remembered at present. But without petroleum modern life as we know it would be impossible. Our wealth, our numbers, and perhaps even our lifespans would be radically diminished. If oil disappeared tomorrow, catastrophe would ensue.


Many climate scientists say that if we continue to use fossil fuels at our current pace catastrophe will ensue, especially if the developing world continues to raise its living standards and consume energy like Westerners. The risk of climate change is a giant x factor in every proposed energy policy.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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