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NATURAL GAS

Natural gas is one of the most popular forms of energy in use today. It is colorless and odorless, except when a malodorant is added for safety purposes, and it burns with an even temperature. When burned, it is more environmentally friendly than many other fuels. Yet the use of natural gas for heat is not new. In fact, the Chinese were using it more than two thousand years ago. Today natural gas not only heats homes and cooks meals, it also powers school buses, garbage trucks, and other fleet vehicles at less cost and less emitted pollution than gasoline or diesel fuel. Its many useful by-products include the carbon black that makes automobile tires last longer, and a host of consumer products ranging from drugs, medicines, and cosmetics to man-made fibers for clothing. Natural gas also provides the ammonia that fertilizes crops.

Natural gas is a homogenous fluid of low density and low viscosity. It is classified as a fluid, since both liquids and gases are fluids. Unlike liquids, however, gases have neither definite shape nor definite volume; e.g., a gas will expand to fill its container. It is a form of energy that is basically a hydrocarbonic mixture that contains some impurities. This naturally occurring mixture has its own composition that can change as its underground reservoir is depleted. Natural gas may be found by itself in a geological formation but also is often found in conjunction with oil and salt water. In this case, gas under pressure provides the prime driving force needed to remove the oil from the reservoir. Although technically considered a "fossil fuel," the major constituent of natural gas is methane, which can also be generated from today's biological wastes from plants and animals. Its other components may include ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, heptane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and helium. Sometimes the mixture may also include hydrogen sulfide, which even in small concentrations can be highly dangerous.

Natural gas can be produced from wells that produce only gas, or from wells that also produce condensate, a liquid hydrocarbon that lies halfway between gas and oil. Over the years condensate has gone by many names: casinghead gas, casinghead gasoline, white gas, and drip gas. In the days of simple engines in automobiles and farm tractors it was not uncommon for anyone having access to a condensate well to fill his tank with "drip." However, the results were not always predictable. At times it might not even ignite, and at other times it might cause thundering backfires and clouds of foul-smelling smoke.

While oil is measured in barrels, natural gas is measured in cubic feet, and the number of British Thermal Units (or BTUs) per cubic foot, determine its value. A BTU is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. Another difference between gas and oil is that oil is seldom found at depths greater than ten thousand to sixteen thousand feet. However, natural gas was produced from a depth of 31,441 feet from the world's deepest producing well, the Lone Star Bertha Rogers drilled in the Hunton Formation in Beckham County, Oklahoma. The Bertha Rogers also happened to be the site of the world's largest well blowout. This took place during the oil and gas boom of the early 1980s when drilling companies were building "10-milers," rigs that were designed to drill to depths up to fifty thousand feet.

Natural gas has increased in importance to Oklahoma's economy over the years. In the early years of the petroleum industry in Oklahoma, gas associated with oil being produced was flared (burned off at the wellhead). This was a waste not only of a valuable commodity but also of the reservoir drive that provided the pressure to lift the oil to the surface. At that time however, there were no pipelines to transport the gas to places it might have been used.

But as the industry grew in the state and more and more gas-producing formations were discovered, gas pipelines were laid to transport the gas to markets. Some of the major gas basins in Oklahoma include the Arkoma, which runs from east central Oklahoma into Arkansas. The East Texas is in the lower southeastern tip of Oklahoma, the southwestern tip of Arkansas, and the northeastern tip of Texas. The huge Anadarko Basin underlies central and western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and southwestern Kansas. The smaller Marietta Basin is located in south-central Oklahoma and runs southeast into Texas, while the Ardmore Basin lies between the East Texas and Arkhoma basins. In all, there are thirty-four hundred gas fields in Oklahoma.

Not only has the gas that these fields produced been of great commercial value, the gross production taxes levied on it have helped fund the state government and also has provided a major source of income for the Oklahoma Teachers' Retirement System. According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, in the first ten months of the year 2000, 228,039,837 mcf (thousand cubic feet) of casinghead gas and 1,183,720,664 mcf of natural gas were produced. Since casinghead and natural gas figures are combined for gross production tax purposes, Oklahoma collected a total of $291,000,156 in taxes on this ten-month production. This statistic alone illustrates the economic significance of natural gas for Oklahoma.

SEE ALSO: OKLAHOMA ECONOMY, PETROLEUM, TWENTIETH CENTURY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bill D. Berger and Kenneth E. Anderson, Modern Petroleum A Basic Primer of the Industry (Tulsa, Okla.: PennWell Books, 1990). Paul Lambert, "Natural Gas: Fuel for the Future," in Drill Bits, Picks, and Shovels: A History of Mineral Resources in Oklahoma, ed. John W. Morris (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982). Robert A. Northcutt, "Oil and Gas Development in Oklahoma, 1891-1984," Shale Shaker: The Journal of the Oklahoma City Geological Society 35 (June-July1985).

Ken Anderson

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