Emissions Impossible: Deposing King Coal

Timeline: How We Learned to Love—and Hate—Natural Gas

From bridge fuel to fracking, a history of the little blue flame.

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
1825

In Chautauqua County, New York, William Hart discovers natural gas reserves. Uses gas to light buildings in Fredonia; town's official seal features five burners representing those lights.

1940s

Worried about German subs targeting tankers, government supports construction of oil pipelines from Texas to East Coast; after war, pipelines approved for gas transport as well.

1950

Natural gas use begins steady climb, will nearly double over next two decades.

1954

Federal government establishes price controls for interstate gas sales, making it more lucrative to sell in states where it's produced. Shortages ensue across Midwest and East Coast.

1970

Gas' share of US energy consumption peaks at 30 percent (25 percent today).

Oct. 23, 1970

Streaking down Bonneville Salt Flats at 622 mph, gas-powered Blue Flame sets world land-speed record.

1976

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act passed to regulate hazardous waste; gas will be made exempt.

Jan. 20, 1977

Jimmy Carter inaugurated amid energy crisis, sets White House thermostat at 65, dons cardigan.

Jan. 26, 1977

Facing record cold, Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp orders schools closed for three days because of gas shortage. On the same day, Carter proposes Emergency Natural Gas Act, deregulating the industry.

1979

In his book The Politics of Energy, influential environmentalist Barry Commoner introduces notion of gas as "bridging fuel" to greener future.

1986

Congress passes Community Right to Know Act requiring companies to report toxic releases; pleading trade secrets for fracking fluids, gas drillers get exemption.

1987

Gas industry granted exemption from Clean Water Act amendments designed to keep pollution out of storm water.

1990

Gas drillers given de facto exemption from Clean Air Act.

July 25, 1991

International Gas Union releases report declaring that gas is "trump card" in the fight against destruction of the environment.

Nov. 4, 1991

Automotive News touts gas as "cheap, plentiful, patriotic" solution for motor vehicles.

May 21, 1992

President George H.W. Bush's EPA chief, Bill Reilly, meets with industry execs including Enron CEO Ken Lay, praises gas' "relative environmental cleanliness."

1993

Ford develops natural-gas-powered Crown Victoria that ends up in cab fleets in NYC, LA, and other cities. Project partially funded by gas industry.

Dec. 20, 2000

President-elect George W. Bush: "Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our own neighborhoods."

Jan. 2001

Shortly after taking office, VP Dick Cheney (previously CEO of oil and gas firm Halliburton) forms energy task force. Its report incorporates much of gas industry's lobbying wish list, including drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

2005

Cheney-backed energy bill contains "Halliburton loophole," which exempts frackers from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

2007

Sierra Club director Carl Pope chooses to accept funding for Beyond Coal campaign from natural gas company Chesapeake Energy, does not tell his board or members. Chesapeake will give club more than $25 million over three years.

2008

Researchers release estimate that there's up to 250 times more gas in Marcellus Shale formation, which runs from New York to West Virginia, than previously thought.

July 8, 2008

Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens unveils "Pickens Plan" to reduce dependence on foreign oil by massively increasing gas drilling.

July 19, 2009

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes in Financial Times that US is "awash with natural gas," which "has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal."

Aug. 2009

Former Sen. Timothy Wirth and John Podesta of the Center for American Progress call gas "a bridge fuel to a 21st-century energy economy."

Nov. 2009

New York officials test fracking wastewater, find it's radioactive.

Jan. 24, 2010

Documentary Gasland premieres, introduces America to flaming tap water. Nominated for 2011 Academy Award.

Feb. 2010

Congressional investigation reveals fracking companies are injecting diesel fuel and other toxic chemicals underground.

July 28, 2010

Senate Democrats seek to compel disclosure of chemicals in fracking fluid. Bill fails.

Sept. 2010

Obama EPA asks frackers for information about fluids. Only Halliburton refuses.

Sept. 9, 2010

Natural gas pipeline explodes in San Bruno, California, killing eight.

Jan. 25, 2011

In State of the Union, Obama rolls out clean energy plan that includes major expansion in natural gas.

March 2011

Study in journal Climatic Change suggests cumulative greenhouse impact of natural gas may be at least 20 percent higher than coal's because of methane leakage from wells.

Aug. 2011

US Geological Survey reduces estimate of undiscovered gas in Marcellus Shale by 80 percent.

Oct. 2011

RFK retracts support for gas, credits New York Times reporting for alerting him to risks.

Nov. 2011

EPA moves toward regulating toxic fracking discharges; industry pushes back.

Jan. 2012

Geologists link fracking to earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Jan. 2012

Cornell University veterinarian publishes study on cats, dogs, horses, and cows having seizures and dying after exposure to fracking chemicals.

March 15, 2012

Actor Mark Ruffalo, a.k.a. the Hulk, launches Water Defense to oppose fracking, mountaintop removal, and other "destructive fossil fuel practices."

 

Image credits: Troxx/Wikipedia; Dirk Halstead/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; Joshua Roberts/Reuters; Gasland; Johannah Reimer

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