Energy, the stuff of life

The role of fossil fuels in societal evolution

The word “energy” derives from the Greek “energeia,” which first appeared in print in the fourth century B.C. Without energy, life as we know it would not exist. We use energy to heat our homes and businesses, cook our food, wash and dry our clothes, play our music, power our mobile phones, fuel our cars, machinery, boats and airplanes and run our factories. Energy touches us every minute of every day of our lives.

The United States is one of the largest consumers of energy in the world, consuming nearly 20% of the earth’s energy resources. On an average day, Americans use about 19 million barrels of oil2 and more than 70 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Energy touches us every minute of every day of our lives.

The sun was the earth’s first energy source, providing light and heat to the world’s first plants, animals and humans, many believe.

Blowing hot

The sun is essentially a giant ball of hot gasses. About 72% of the gas is hydrogen and about 26% is helium. The rest are trace amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, neon, magnesium, iron and silicon. The gasses are converted into energy in the sun’s core, which is about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, through a process called nuclear fusion. It moves from there outward, into the sun’s atmosphere, where it’s released into the solar system as heat and light. The sun is estimated to be brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way (the galaxy that contains our solar system).

Because the sun provides energy to all living things, it is a true source of fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas are fossil fuels that have been used in some form by humans for thousands of years. They are called fossil fuels because they are the byproducts of fossilized plant, animal and diatomic (made of two atoms) sea life that lived 300 to 400 million years ago.

Most fossil fuels are thought to have originated in ancient oceans and other bodies of water. Scientists have theorized that when this plant and diatomic sea life died, it became part of the sediment at the bottom of the lakes and oceans. Over a period of 50 to 100 million years, these fossilized remains were buried by sediment and rock. The pressure and heat from this increasingly heavy burden formed the fossilized remains into a dark organic layer called kerogen. Much later, that kerogen ultimately turned into coal, natural gas and crude oil underneath layers of salt, silt, rock and earth. It took a very long time before humans devised ways to harness fossil fuels and use them in productive ways.

The sun provides energy to plants and trees, which are used to fuel fire, civilization’s first organized use of energy. Natural fires were started by lightning, but it wasn’t long before our human ancestors figured out how to ignite and control fires and harness this resource for heat, cooking and light after the sun went down.

Some paleolithic archaeologists believe the earliest use of controlled fire dates back a million years, while other researchers and experts estimate the first controlled fires occurred 1.5 million years ago. Early man’s command of fire represented a huge turning point, given its impact on improved diet and nutrition (because it enabled cooking) and increased socialization, and helped these early humans to forge tools and blades out of stone.

Among the first fossil fuel products widely used by humans as a source of energy was coal, a black or brownish combustible rock formed by the partial decomposition of vegetable matter. It is made up of at least 50% carbonaceous (rich in carbon) material by weight. Other components include hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, some sulfur and a few trace materials. How much of each of these exist in a given piece of coal depends on, among other factors, what type of vegetation it came from, how deeply inside the ground it formed and how old it is.

Coal is the most abundant of the fossil fuels and has the longest history. Coal mining in the U.S. dates to the early 18th century, and commercial mining started around 1730. The invention of the coal-fired steam engine in 1765 sparked the desire to build different, bigger and more powerful machines. This progress, along with plentiful coal resources, ultimately drove the industrial revolution in Europe, which spread to the United States and dramatically expanded the use of coal. It quickly became the fuel used to fire the boilers that provided the energy to move steamships and trains.

Petroleum (derived from the Medieval Latin words “petr,” or rock, and “oleum,” or oil) as an energy source dates back even further, some 5,000 to 6,000 years, albeit in a smaller way, at least in the beginning. Ancient Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians discovered “seeps,” places where petroleum, also called crude oil, seeps to the surface of the earth. They gathered the oil and burned it in lamps to provide light.

Kerosene, a byproduct of petroleum, was first written about in the ninth century by the Persian scholar and physicist Rāzi, who described two distillation methods for producing it, one using clay as an absorbent and the other involving ammonium chloride. About this same time, kerosene was also being produced from oil shale and bitumen (an oil-based, semisolid hydrocarbon) by heating the rock to extract the oil, which then had to be distilled.

But it wasn’t until 1846 that kerosene came to be called by that name; that’s when a Canadian geologist, Abraham Gesner, heated coal in a glass distillation dish and derived the thin clear liquid that proved to be a great lamp fuel. Gesner eventually formed the North American Gas Light Company and in 1854 obtained his first kerosene patent. For several years, this was the only company that had rights to call its lamp oil by the name kerosene. Kerosene remains a popular fuel source for lighting in rural areas of Asia and Africa.

Oil became a major industry in the U.S. in the late 1800s, although civilizations around the globe were aware of it centuries ago. Aristotle was among the first to publish a theory, believing that stones, ores (metal-bearing mineral rocks) and fossils formed as deposits far below the earth’s surface, trapped in deep cracks or clefts. His followers believed that the foul smell associated with some of those stones was sulfur.

Theories on the origination of petroleum emerged later, during the Renaissance period. Agricola, a German physician, wrote in 1546 that bitumen, the smelly stone identified by Aristotle, originated in sulfur located deep within the earth. Another German physician, Labavius, theorized in 1599 that bitumen might come from the resin of ancient trees. In 1866, Leo Lesquereux, a Swiss bryologist, declared petroleum to be the byproduct of marine algae in shale rock. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that science was able to definitively determine the origin of petroleum.14

Kerosene Lamp

As humans became increasingly aware of the value and use of oil, progress was made in discovering ways to both get at it and use it. The first productive oil well, all of 69 feet deep, was drilled near Titusville, Penn., in 1859 by a man named Edwin “Colonel” Drake, an employee of the Seneca Oil Company. Colonel Drake’s vertical well was drilled using a percussion method, or cable tool rig. Powered by a steam engine, a cable tool rig uses a derrick (a machine for hoisting and moving heavy objects) and cables and weights to pound a hole into the earth and extract pieces of rock created by the drilling. Although cable tool rigs still see application today in drilling some shallow wells, rotary drilling, which uses a rotating drill bit to delve into rock, became the preferred drilling technique near the turn of the 19th century, and today remains the method of choice.

Drake’s well, circa 1859

Another important milestone in U.S. oil production was reached in 1901, when a well at Spindletop Hill, a salt dome oil field in Beaumont, Texas, struck oil. Within weeks, the oil field was heavily producing , kicking off the Texas Oil Boom.

Spindletop, circa 1901

Demand for petroleum increased rapidly, and especially so after the 1908 introduction of the Model T Ford, also known as the “Tin Lizzie,” which was the first mass-produced automobile. Given its economic assembly, it became the first affordable automobile that made car ownership a reality for middle class Americans. During the 19 years the Model T was produced, more than 15 million of them rolled off the assembly line. And all of them needed gasoline to run.

1908 advertisement for a Model T Ford

As societies’ hunger for energy grew, uses of it were rapidly emerging, sometimes evolving in tandem. Following Benjamin Franklin’s 1752 invention of the lightening rod, the 1800 invention of the electric battery and the first use of electricity in industrial motors in 1837, demand for electricity – and innovations for its use – rose dramatically. Industry responded. In 1882, the Edison Company opened the nation’s first electric power plant, the Pearl Street Power Station in New York City, which was initially powered by steam engines. Additional plants soon followed.

Pearl Street Station, circa 1882

The invention of the Bunsen burner in 1885 was another turning point in fossil fuel energy (and electricity) as it opened up many new avenues for natural gas usage, such as cooking and heating, as well as other applications. More readily available, natural gas soon became a widely used fuel, with its uses ranging from powering water heaters and boilers to commercial and industrial applications. After World War II, pipe building technologies had advanced to the point they could support extensive gas pipeline build-out, and the race was on to build an expansive network.

Bunsen burner

In addition to progress in electricity, the invention in 1860 of the first internal combustion engine using coal gas also foreshadowed the beginning of great change. Coal gas, a reliable and continuous source of power, is a mixture of gasses produced by distilling bituminous coal. Just a few years later, in 1864, the invention of an engine that used gasoline as a fuel launched what quickly became an era of innovation and invention with an attendant demand for oil and gas. Commercial drilling and production of petroleum began in earnest, and as the industrial revolution boomed, oil and gas found myriad applications in lighting, transportation, manufacturing, power production and aeronautics.

The first attempts to capture and use natural gas as a commercial energy source occurred in the early 19th century. Toward the end of that century, the benefits and possibilities of natural gas were becoming understood, and large industrial cities began to use natural gas as a fuel.

Natural gas was first drilled in the U.S. in 1821, when a gunsmith by the name of William Hart, referred to as the “father of natural gas,” drilled a 27-foot well in Fredonia, New York, and piped natural gas, albeit somewhat inefficiently, through a short pipeline to provide lighting in nearby buildings. But Hart wasn’t the first to become aware of natural gas. It has been said that in 1770 George Washington saw flames rising on the water near what is now Charleston, West Virginia, as did Thomas Jefferson at a later date.

The first commercial use of natural gas occurred in 1825, when a hotel in Fredonia used natural gas for cooking. And, in 1840, a man named John Griswell drilled a salt well in Pennsylvania but struck gas instead. He burned the gas under the evaporating pans he used in his salt mining production, marking the beginning of industrial use of natural gas in the U.S. It was many years before a natural gas pipeline of any meaningful distance was constructed. Built of wood, it spanned 25 miles, connecting the cities of West Bloomfield and Rochester in New York, although it too ultimately proved unsuccessful. The first truly successful gas pipeline was built in 1891. The race was on, and the rest of the 1880s and early 1900s witnessed the rapid proliferation of natural gas transportation companies in the U.S.

Advances in drilling technology and oil sands processing have enabled producers to access and retrieve trapped resources.


Fossil fuels and the North American energy transformation

Geologists had long known about oil and natural gas resources in North American shale, which is found in more than 30 states, and about the unconventional petroleum deposits in the Canadian oil sands. But these resources were almost impossible to access. The oil and gas found in U.S. shale reservoirs is trapped in tiny pores in layers of shale rock thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. In the Canadian oil sands, the oil (bitumen or crude bitumen), is found immersed in sand, and is so thick and viscous it has to be heated or diluted with water to make it separate from individual grains of sand and become liquid enough to flow. None of these resources, while vast, were commercially viable to produce. However, advances in drilling technology and oil sands processing have now enabled producers to access and retrieve these trapped resources. Today, drilling activity is driven by the combination of two processes used safely for many years — hydraulic fracturing (pioneered in the 1940s) and horizontal drilling (first practically applied in the 1980s), a newer technique that enabled drillers greater access to resource-rich areas. Combining the two processes and technological improvements have increased their economic efficiency and are now enabling producers to access and retrieve these trapped resources.

Driving change

The earliest work around hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling took place in the Barnett shale in North Texas and was the effort of one company in particular – Mitchell Energy, owned by George Mitchell, later dubbed “the father of the Barnett.” Mitchell Energy had produced gas from a shallow formation that had first been tapped in the 1950s using traditional oil well methods. But by 1982, production was slowing as the previously easily accessible supply was waning. Operating on the belief that the shale contained abundant gas reserves that were locked into smaller pores of the source rock – in part because drillers had noticed “kicks of gas” while drilling through the formation – Mitchell Energy began experimenting with unconventional production that paired horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing.

George Mitchell

George Mitchell

Traditionally, oil wells were dug vertically to a point directly below the drill site, pipes were inserted to stabilize the well hole (or wellbore), and oil that flowed into the well pipe would naturally rise to the surface or be mechanically pumped out. Horizontal or directional drilling came along later, enabling drillers to direct the drill bit to areas not directly beneath the drilling site, and often to much greater areas of resource-rich rock. Horizontal drilling in conjunction with hydraulic fracturing involves injecting pressurized water and sand into a well to fracture oil and gas-containing rock. The sand (also called proppant) that was pumped into the well holds the fractures open so oil, gas and water can flow from the rock into the wellbore and up to the surface. Pumps are used to extract oil and gas that don't come to the surface naturally.

Early results were mixed, but Mitchell Energy persisted, trying different methods, fine-tuning drilling techniques and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the process before becoming successful. By 2003, Mitchell’s success in the Barnett shale had become well known, and the combination of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing gained momentum as independent energy companies increasingly applied the winning combination method in oil and gas basins across North America. By 2008, major integrated oil and gas production companies began to embrace the approach, and the North American energy transformation was underway.

A timely tale

The shale drilling technology, along with the discovery of more reservoirs of resource-rich shale and the potential discovery of additional shale reservoirs in areas where industry has been unable to fully explore, have driven a transformation in North American energy that has tremendous potential. And the timing couldn’t be better. Today, the United States is one of the largest consumers of energy in the world.

Today, the United States is one of the largest consumers of energy in the world.