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Energy Timelines

Natural Gas

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Natural gas is mostly a mixture of methane, ethane, and propane, with methane making up 73% to 95% of the total. Often found when drilling for oil, natural gas was once considered mainly a bother. When there were no uses or markets to sell natural gas, it was simply flared (burned off) at the wellhead. Major flaring sites were sometimes the brightest areas visible in nighttime satellite images. Today, however, the gas is mostly injected back into the ground for later use and to encourage greater oil production.

200 B.C.
  • The Chinese used natural gas to make salt from salt water (brine) in gas-fired evaporators.
  • French explorers discovered Native Americans burning gases that were seeping into and around Lake Erie.
  • Natural gas was used in Baltimore to fuel street lamps. During the 19th century, natural gas was used in Europe and in North America as a lighting fuel. Most of the natural gas produced at that time was manufactured from coal and not extracted from the earth, as it is today.
  • In Fredonia, New York, William Hart dug the first successful well that was intended to produce natural gas. Hart dug a 27-foot well to try and bring a larger flow of gas to the surface. Expanding on Hart's work, the Fredonia Gas Light Company was eventually formed, becoming the first American natural gas company.

  • Robert Bunsen invented what is now known as the Bunsen burner. The Bunsen burner produced a flame that could be safely used for cooking and heating by mixing the right proportion of natural gas and air. The invention of thermostatic devices allowed the flame's temperature to be adjusted and monitored.

  • Electricity began to replace natural gas for lighting purposes.
  • One of the first lengthy pipelines was constructed, which was 120 miles long, and carried natural gas from wells in central Indiana to the city of Chicago. This early pipeline was not very efficient at transporting natural gas.
  • The first all-welded pipeline, over 200 miles in length, was built — from Louisiana to Texas.
  • Natural gas distributors began adding mercaptan, with its rotten-egg smell, to the otherwise odorless natural gas — so that leaks can be easily detected.
  • U.S. residential demand for natural gas grew fifty times.
  • The nation began a massive expansion of its pipeline network, which led to rapid growth of natural gas markets. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of miles of pipeline were constructed throughout the United States. Today, the U.S. interstate pipeline network, laid end-to-end, would stretch almost 12 times around the earth.

  • Methane Pioneer, a converted cargo ship, was used to carry liquified natural gas between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the United Kingdom.
  • Gas well productivity peaked at 435 thousand cubic feet per well per day.
  • U.S. natural gas production reached a record-high of 21.7 trillion cubic feet before starting a long period of decline.
  • The cost of natural gas for residential users set a record high of $10.06 per thousand cubic feet (measured in constant 2004 dollars).
  • Consumption of natural gas began to grow faster than production.
  • Net imports, as a share of natural gas consumption, more than tripled. These imports nearly all came by pipeline from Canada. Small shipments were brought by tanker as liquefied natural gas from Algeria and, in recent years, from a few other countries.
  • New drilling technology made offshore sites more important. Over the next 20 years, about one-fifth of all U.S. production came from offshore sites.
  • The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) issued the first natural gas futures contract. A futures contract is an agreement today on the price of a commodity (or financial instrument) to be paid for and delivered in the future.
  • The Clean Air Act Amendments required many changes to fossil fuels to make them pollute less. The use of these cleaner fuels was phased-in during the 1990s. Natural gas was promoted as cleaner burning fuel in power generation and transportation, increasing the use of natural gas.
  • About 5.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas were reported as being used for vehicles.
  • Natural gas consumption peaked at 23.3 trillion cubic feet.
  • The share of natural gas coming from imports peaked at 16.2%.
  • After years of decline, gas well productivity reached a record low at 124 thousand cubic feet per day. The average natural gas well produced only 29% as much as in 1971.
  • Over one-fourth of U.S. production came from Texas.
  • The record-setting hurricane season of 2005 caused massive damage to the U.S. natural gas and petroleum infrastructure. The Gulf of Mexico, one of the nation's largest sources of oil and gas production, was dealt a one-two punch by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many Gulf of Mexico wells, terminals, processing plants, and pipelines went off-line.
  • U.S. residential natural gas prices were the highest ever recorded in September, reaching $16.66 per thousand cubic feet.
  • A record 31,687 natural gas wells were drilled.
  • On April 20, 2010, an explosion and fire occurred on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which had been drilling an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident killed 11 crewmembers and left oil leaking from the unfinished well into the ocean for months.
  • On May 27, 2010, Secretary of the Interior Salazar announced a 6-month hold or "moratorium" on deepwater drilling.

Last Revised: June 2010