NOWHERE is there a more striking example of a natural resource which but yesterday was going prodigally to waste but which to-day is making seven-league-boot strides toward being carefully conserved than is presented by natural gas. To be sure natural gas had known its day of glory in certain restricted areas, but in its abundant appearance in connection with the production of oil in the large fields of the West the waste of it had become notorious. Now, with the aid that has been lent it by steel, fabricated in a new way and welded into unbroken hundred-mile links of pipe, natural gas has assumed a value that is leading to its being held in nature's tanks until it can find this new route to market, or its actual delivery to that market.
Wild gas brought from underground in isolated solitudes is traveling a thousand miles to centers where millions every day touch matches to burners because of the fact that the steel industry developed pipe 2 feet across and a method of so welding it together that it would stand high pressure and never leak.
With such pipe Louisiana has shaken hands by means of natural gas lines with Atlanta and St. Louis; Kettleman Hills, in California, has blessed San Francisco; and Amarillo, Tex., has reached out for Chicago and Minneapolis. Single projects are being undertaken that will cost a hundred million dollars, and enthusiasts are talking of the time when all the Nation will tie into a system with stopcocks to the nether regions.
The prospect of selling this natural gas has given a value to it that has caused wells to be capped in a thousand places that heretofore have been allowed to run wild and exhaust themselves. A value has been given to a latent natural resource, heretofore profligately wasted, that, though the operation of economic law, will lead to its careful conservation.
Dynamic Pittsburgh, as well as the region thereabouts, has known natural gas for a long time and owes much of its industrial and commercial advancement to it. This region also has demonstrated that by scratching around a bit a flow of gas may be maintained decade after decade. Industrial gas in the Eastern States is an old story, but the promise of utilization that now presents itself is new.
The maddest adventure of the present generation has been the pursuit of oil. Men have gone about the land dropping drills to puncture its crust on the chance of finding oil and gas that have been brewed and stored in ages past. Often they have found them. Other men have unlocked the secrets of usefulness that lay within this oil, and it has lighted the lamps of the farmhouse, greased the wheels of industry, and exploded itself in cylinders to the acceleration of transportation.
Always it has been natural gas, absorbed in this oil under pressure, that has pushed it up where man could capture it in his barrels. Often little further use has been found for this gas when it has served its initial purpose of oil delivery. Immeasurable quantities of it have come to the surface where there was no demand for it, have been liberated, and, thanks to the law of the diffusion of gasses, have spread themselves out so thinly as to lose their identity.
Now that a use for this gas is being found it may well turn out that the value of that which got away was as great as the value of the oil that was recovered. In California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana some of this incidental gas has been used, but most of it has gone to waste. Recently a new era has dawned and is but now crystallizing into an organization that will save the gas of a nation and distribute it for the benefit of the people.
In California the gas of many oil fields has for decades brought marketable fluid to the surface, served as a power-producing fuel for industry, and supplied adjacent communities with industrial and domestic natural gas. When this was done there were still vast amounts of natural gas left. The practice has been to let it blow off into the air. It has been thrown away as a thing of no value.
The State tried for years to curtail this waste, but it kept on being a fact that a billion cubic feet of gas was being used every day in California and another billion feet was being wasted. If this condition continued, obviously the natural-gas supply would last but half as long as it would if the supplies were conserved. In the Kettleman Hills oil field the discovery well blew gas out of control for six months. The western record was broken when a pipe line 250 miles long was laid to San Francisco. This one well produced enough gas to supply the northern half of California. It could supply all the gas that is locally needed. Other wells have been brought in at Kettleman and much of their gas has been wasted. Yet, despite a lack of a developed market, it was not long before the gas produced at Kettleman Hills was bringing a greater return than the oil. Soon California was planning pipe lines in many directions, notably toward Portland and Seattle, far up the coast. She has more gas than she can use at the moment, but, in the light of demonstrated possibilities, she wants to bottle it up and wait to see what to-morrow will have to offer.
This yield of natural gas as an incident to oil production is not, however, the big item in the new scheme. To be sure, 300 towns and cities in Oklahoma are so supplied, but that fact is by no means as spectacular as what is happening in the Monroe and Richland section of Louisiana, or in the Panhandle of Texas, where fields have been discovered promising unbelievable quantities of gas but yielding little or no oil.
Natural gas was discovered at Monroe, in northern Louisiana, in 1909. So little value was attached to it that it was not until 1916 that any of it was put to work. There is an industrythat of the production of carbon black, used in the preparation of printer's ink and in the treatment of rubber that it may make tougher automobile tiresthat is based upon the presence of abundant natural gas at a very low price. The carbon-black people had operated in the West Virginia field, but now they saw Louisiana beckoning.
Carbon black is the material that forms on the lamp chimney when the wick smokes. It is formed by natural gas when that fuel is burned in the presence of less oxygen than is needed for complete combustion and the flame is directed against plates on which it may be deposited. But it can not be economically produced when it must pay industrial prices for its gas. The first decade in the life of the Monroe natural-gas field was devoted to the production of carbon black.
Then the idea of piping this gas to distant municipalities and using it commercially began to develop. A pipe line originating in the Monroe district felt its way down the river to Baton Rouge, grew ambitious, and thrust on to New Orleans. Another meandered up through Arkansas to Fort Smith. Hearing the more strident call of the great city of St. Louis, 450 miles away, the Monroe field struck out boldly and spanned that unprecedented distance. Houston, Tex., young industrial giant, attracted another tentacle. Finally a line was thrust out ambitiously through swamp and morass, across the State of Mississippi, supplying Meridian and West Point, on through Birmingham, Ala., to Atlanta, in Georgia, 240 miles away, distributing the ashless fuel all along the route.
A neglected natural resource in a nonindustrial area had built an empire for itself and contentedly had sat down to collect its continuing tribute. Carbon black moved on to Texas, where fuel still was to be had for next to nothing. Amarillo, Tex., was a straggling cow town that sat out in the midst of those lonesome reaches of the semiarid Great Plains area that stretched from Mexico to Canada. Inquisitive geologists, financed by speculative oilmen, began looking for evidences of domes and anticlines in this lonesome area in the second decade of the present century, and in 1918 gas had been tapped that pushed 450 pounds against every square inch in its eagerness to escape its age-old confinement. Time and perseverance developed the fact that, beginning at the Oklahoma border and stretching westward, there was a 90-mile-long uplift that through the ages had been putting away gas much as it is stored in those red-painted circular tanks that infest most communities. About the fringes of this area oil was produced, but it was primarily a natural-gas belt.
Amarillo was so far from any area of large population that its gas was considered next to worthless. There were no optimists so sanguine as to surmise that a time would come when its British thermal units would ever stimulate industry in distant cities. Cheap fuel, some said, might eventually bring fuel-using industries to the Panhandle, but beyond that possibility there were no prospects. Cheap gas did, in fact, entice the carbon-black industry onto the prairies. As Monroe, La., found a more profitable use for its gas, long rows of houses given to the burning of carbon black lined these western railroads and precipitated their carloads of soot.
In September, 1928, a pipe line 20 inches in diameter and 382 miles long, capable of delivering 250,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day, reached Kansas City from the Panhandle. At the same time a line to Denver 340 miles in length and 22 inches in diameter was under construction. It later branched out to supply such adjacent cities as Boulder. Then the Panhandle thought about Milwaukee and set about its annexation. Finally there came what seemed the climax of hallucinations due to gas, giving the impression that certain important people, reputed to be solid businessmen, were under its influence. Two lines, 24 inches in diameter, 1,000 miles long, struck out from the Panhandle to the Chicago area. The undertaking would require somewhere around $100,000,000 in the execution, yet there seemed to be no worry about money, for one of the greatest of the public-utility corporations sat in at the christening.
But for the advances made in steel-pipe manufacture this whole development would have been unlikely. These manufacturers took steel sheets, rolled them into tubes, welded the edges together, and had tubes of strong, enduring pipe. They took them into the field in 40-foot joints, welded the ends of these together and converted them into air-tight serpents hundreds of miles long, crawling across the landscape, capable of enduring high pressure, and delivering their cargoes in far-away cities. Such pipe is a child of yesterday. To-morrow it may be carrying natural gas to the mass of the population of the United States.
So rapid has been this development of the use of natural gas that few people seem to have paused to consider its ultimate possibilities. It seems obvious, however, that the heart of the Nation which lies between the Appalachians and the Rockies and boasts a population of 57,000,000 will, in another year, have natural gas available to it. The possibilities of reaching the rest of the world with the California surplus, or of reaching the New York area with gas from Louisiana-Texas resources, is to-day no more vague and seemingly impracticable than reaching Chicago seemed a few years ago. If one should predict that natural gas will be available in 10 years to all of the United States that has any urgent use for it, there would seem no reason for doubting his sanity.
There is a question of governmental and public interest in which oil has been climbing into the position of a front rank industry of the Nation the waste of gas has appalled the conservationists. The gas came up with the oil, and often, after the gasoline was squeezed out of it, there was no further use to which it could be put. Generally it has been turned into the atmosphere. The waste has been beyond measuring. The Federal Government has constantly preached of natural-gas conservation. Some of the States have sought to prevent its waste by regulation. Now the law of profit comes to their aid. It is shown that gas, if kept below ground, may be sold at substantial prices. Thus economics, coming to the aid of government, aids in saving a great natural resource.
Last Updated: 20-Jul-2009