Bay Journal

Illuminating history of natural gas in the watershed sheds light on need for caution

  • By Kent Mountford on March 01, 2011
Dave Allen's remnant of a 24-inch continuously welded pipeline conduit, lower right, was part of a pipeline used to bring natural gas to the District of Columbia. (Kent Mountford) A variable volume gas container, or gasometer in East London.  (Squiddy / Wikipedia) The gasometer, a huge gas-tight inverted bucket, floating in a deep circular pool, slid up and down, and was held in place by an exterior, above-ground framework. As gas was produced, it was pumped into the bucket, raising it until full. As gas was piped out, the bucket dropped lower into the pool.  (Wikipedia) The Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. In the 1840s, at the start of the gaslight era, a huge lantern was mounted atop the dome. Although it was dramatic, and visible a long way, it did not light the grounds as much as was anticipated.  (Kent Mountford)

Seventeenth century colonists were stunned by the abundance of energy sources they found in the Chesapeake region.

Timber was everywhere. This source of firewood for heating and cooking had become very scarce in Tudor England. Water power was also abundant, leading to tremendous numbers of mills used to grind corn and wheat, or saw timber.

Later, vast deposits of coal - both hard and soft - were discovered in the Chesapeake region and this fuel fired the U.S. industrial revolution in the 19th century. There are still many deep mines and their legacy of acid drainage remains. Controversy now rages over "mountaintop removal" mining, and its destruction of landscape and habitat.

Natural gas has been known for thousands of years. Plutarch, in his writings around A.D. 100-125, reported "eternal fires," assumed to have been natural gas seeps ignited by lightning or brush fires.

In 1821, William A. Hart, in Fredonia, NY, on Lake Erie drilled down 27 feet to augment a natural surface seep and create the first intentional natural gas well. Natural gas was as good as the manufactured type for lighting and heating, although the large-scale transmission for commercial use did not begin until the late 1930s.

The first drilled oil wells brought into production in the United States were in Pennsylvania. Since then, oil has become an immense source of fuels and other products. Our nation's thirst for this energy is also at the root of many problems, from our dependence on foreign oil, to poor air quality, to the vast miles of impervious surfaces covered by roads and parking lots.

Deposits of natural gas in the mid-Atlantic have recently been shown to represent a vast potential energy source. But they are dispersed in immense shale deposits and are not simple to extract.

Natural gas, once vented and burned as waste from oil derricks, has been recognized as a vital energy resource since the 1930s. It burns clean, ostensibly with fewer negative environmental consequences. Extracting it from mid-Atlantic shale can be viewed as a solution to our energy needs or as an environmental problem - or both.

Whatever view one takes, how combustible gas came to fit into the economy of the densely settled Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area provides an interesting piece of Chesapeake history.

When I moved to my home, Catchall, on Osborn Cove, there was little in the way of recycling or landfill. The tradition was to throw food materials in a pit to compost, and to dump metal, glass, appliances and old cars in any nearby wooded ravine. Waste paper and yard leavings were burnt, the former resident instructed us, in the incinerator - a big 24-inch diameter steel pipe on the edge of the hill.

The pipe has provenance. David Pillsbury Allen, who had once owned the house, worked for Washington Gas Light Co. and was one of the engineers on the project to bring natural gas to the District.

This pipe was part of that pipeline. The old pipe eventually became a lace of crumbling rust and by then we could take it to a legitimate landfill. But a second pipe, found in the valley and hauled up with my tractor, has been conserved as an artifact of a very early 3/16-inch wall, continuously welded pipe, and part of U.S. energy history. It was, indeed, part of the great pipeline system, which brought gas a thousand or more miles to East Coast cities.

The pipe had a long story getting here, and its story is connected to the discovery of combustible gases of organic origin, as well as an interesting Chesapeake character.

Jan Baptiste van Helmont (1577-1644), a Flemish experimenter, found that heating wood or coal in a closed "retort" would release a combustible "wild spirit" - ” an interesting parlor trick at the time. He wrote about this in his "Origins of Medicine" published about 1609. To put this in context of the times, the Jamestown settlement, barely 2 years old, was going through difficult times. Capt. John Smith was grievously injured that year and sent home to England.

William Murdoch (later spelled it Murdock), an 18th century partner of James Watt, whom we credit with the invention of the steam engine, is said to have experimented with heating coal in his mother's teapot, which issued a combustible gas from its spout. This basic process was called "carbonization" and Murdock went on to try different ways of making, purifying and storing this gas. There was one small problem; the gas contained carbon monoxide, a hazard that was to extinguish many lives over the next two centuries.

Practical use of "artificial gas" is traced to Sir James Lowther and Dr. James Clayton in Great Britain. Their first 1739 experiments were followed in 1767 by Dr. Richard Watson. By the 1850s, the gas was called variously "town gas" or "producer gas" and was widely used for street lighting even in small to medium-size English towns. Gaslight found its way into middle class homes and eventually domestic gas stoves.

James Crutchell, an English pawnbroker and self-styled engineer, invented a gas production scheme in 1842 and received a British Patent for it the next year. He introduced gas light schemes in several U.S. cities and had been granted a U.S. patent for this process in 1844, a year before he arrived in rural, muddy-laned Washington, DC.

He bought an attractive hilltop cottage near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station in DC and started making gas in his basement. Instead of using coal, he apparently used greases and oils of the sort one might obtain from a rendering plant.

Crutchell just before coming to DC. He blended this artificial gas with air and brightly illuminated his own home, a local wonder. He called the stuff "solar gas" because its spectral composition was close to that of natural sunlight.

Angling for a commercial future, Crutchell, as a community gesture, put in nine street lamps running down North Capitol Street to the gate of the Capitol. This, which was described in the contemporary press as "incomparably beautiful and splendid," delighted evening strollers in a city still otherwise lit by candles, kerosene or whale-oil lamps.

Crutchell next persuaded Congress to permit him, with support from other investors, to put a gas lantern atop the Capitol, claiming it would shed light on the surrounding grounds. His lantern was 20 feet tall and used reflecting mirrors to project light outward and down. It was mounted atop a tall pine pole and guyed to the Capitol dome with shrouds, like a ship's mast. It was dramatic, and visible a long way, but not so far as Crutchell had anticipated, nor did it do much good lighting the grounds.

Undeterred, Crutchell, with support from more investors, won a commission to light the Senate Chambers. The illumination was apparently a great success, and Crutchell wrote to his wife that there was enough light "to write by and read the finest print."

This opened the way for longer and more productive legislative sessions, but Crutchell's star was fading because of his propensity to neglect repaying many loans from his backers.

The public clamored for gas lighting like that already available in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and after multiple unsuccessful petitions to Congress, a utility, the Washington Gas Light Co., received its charter July 8, 1848. George Riggs and William Corcoran played significant roles in the company and WGL, as it was known, and supplied the Capitol building with illuminating gas until 1896.

Storing large quantities of gas was a problem, as production could not be varied and demand changed seasonally. The storage system that evolved used the "gasometer" - a huge gas-tight inverted bucket, floating in a deep circular pool, sliding up and down, and held in place by an exterior, above-ground framework. As gas was produced, it was pumped into the bucket, raising it until full.

Large gasometers could hold about 3.2 million cubic feet of gas. They were skyline features of the small city where I grew up, and I remember that sometimes they rode so low in the pool that I wondered if the community's gas supply would run out. Then suddenly they would be this massive presence again.

In the District, Washington Gas Light expanded, and over time its technologies for producing gas changed. Each source relied on the chemistry of its time to "crack" the light odorless gas from a hydrocarbon base.

Eventually, more than 50,000 manufactured gas plants were built in the United States There were a wide spectrum of technologies used to produce coal gas and its congeners, and an amazing variety of other organic materials came out as a result, including tar for roads, creosote as wood preservative for utility poles and dock pilings, benzole (a motor fuel), phenols (plastics including phenolic resins), cresols for disinfectants, dyes, medicines like the sulfa drugs that saved countless wounded in World War II, and the sweetener saccharin.

Some byproducts were profitable to recover. Others, like ammonia, drip oils or hydrocarbon-contaminated water were not economical to collect, or simply viewed as waste and discarded on land or drained into adjacent waterways. Cleanup and remediation costs were never considered while the pressure of product demand, profitable industrial growth and little regulation prevailed.

Washington Gas Light began introducing natural gas to the region in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover opened a pipeline valve and started the flow from sources in Kentucky and West Virginia. Washington Gas Light at first blended natural gas into their manufactured gas. Then, in 1946 and 1947, WGL converted about 3 million domestic burners to orifices suitable for natural gas, thus ending the coal gas era.

As World War II loomed, the nation correctly feared that coastal bulk commerce in coal and oil would be crippled by Axis submarine attacks. The natural gas flaming off derricks in the Texas oil fields was seen as a needed resource. Pipelines - the "Big Inch" (24 inches in diameter), and the "Little Big Inch" (20 inches) - were constructed from Texas to New Jersey from 1942-43. These became part of the natural gas pipeline network and were valuable conduits for years to come.

Natural gas, modern energy experts say, is clean-burning with useful heat, water and carbon dioxide the end products. It contains about 63,000 BTUs per gallon when compressed to liquid - less than propane which is about 83,000, but still energy-rich enough to run a truck. It is lighter than air, so small leaks rise and diffuse, unlike heavier propane gas, which more easily accumulates to cause explosive mixtures. An unpleasant odor (mercaptans) is added to the originally odorless gas in the delivery pipes to alert users to its presence. This is what we smell when the stove burner takes too long to light.

With petroleum prices and our national dependence on imported oil a serious threat to stability, natural gas has risen high in the pantheon of energy sources. Developing the immense reserves beneath the ancient Appalachians, an organic memory from prehistoric ecosystems, has taken on a new importance (See "Marcellus Shale: Pipe dreams in Pennsylvania?" December 2009), and controversy now arises about how to safely extract the gas and the wide-scale environmental hazards that may emerge.

Natural gas is thus not a simple panacea and the old pipelines, like my remnant at Catchall, are rusting. There are now almost 300,000 miles of gas pipeline in the United States, and a number of recent explosions resulting from pipeline leaks have caused tragic losses of life and property. This is a disturbing, sleeping dragon just below ground and the industry, and its regulators, must take aggressive action to protect the environment or there will be costly consequences nationwide.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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