Natural gas, coal have defined Pittsburgh's history




If the current tug and pull between coal and natural gas rings familiar, it’s because it was born in Pittsburgh and has defined the region’s energy scene more than any other force, according to Joel Tarr.

“The most significant aspects of Pittsburgh’s energy history are those involving transitions between coal and natural gas,” Tarr, professor emeritus of history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in a recently released book, “Energy Capitals.”

It has happened at least three times so far.

The first time gas overtook coal as the fuel of choice for industry was in the 1880. The second happened after World War II. The third is undoubtedly in full swing today.

But Pittsburgh began to bustle even before coal.

“The most important source of power applied to machinery in the pioneer period,” according to authors Solon and Elizabeth Bucks, “was the falling waters of the many streams that resulted from abundant rains and the dissected character of the plateau.”

In their 1976 book, “The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania,” the Bucks wrote that gristmills, sawmills, and others sprung up on the banks of tributaries to the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, aiming to grind most of their product by mid-May, “as failure of water often made the mills idle from late spring to early fall.”

Less than a decade after Europeans settled in western Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, mills popped up along the river banks to capitalize on water’s power.

By the end of the 18th century, 11 furnaces were operating in this region, making pig iron and castings.

Wood, then coal, gave mill owners the opportunity to buy cheaper land further from the water, said Susan Beates, curator and historian at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.

“It’s portable energy versus energy that’s driven by a physical place,” Beates said.

By that time, coal was already being mined in some parts of the region, having started in 1762 on Coal Hill, which is now known as Mt. Washington. The spot marked the first mining of bituminous coal in the nation, according to a history of Mount Washington published by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The black gold was used to supply soldiers at Fort Pitt. Residents of the area also used it to heat their homes.

Still, its use was highly localized.

“It is certainly proper to speak of the years before 1840 as the ‘Age of Wood,’ wrote S.K. Stevens, a state historian, in his 1952 article “When Timber was King in Pennsylvania.”

Before coal was commonplace, wood was stripped of oxygen, and the resulting charcoal powered a growing iron industry. It was also used as fuel for locomotives and wasn’t entirely replaced in that capacity until after the Civil War, Stevens wrote.

Until about 1880, Pennsylvania was the top lumbering state in the nation.

“In fact, it’s one reason that pretty much every tree you see around here is at least ‘third growth,’” said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations at the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development. “Everything’s been cleared and re-planted a couple of times.”

It took many years for coal and gas to supplant wood as a source of home heating, but the allure of seemingly limitless fossil fuels in the region eventually won out.

“So much of our economic success, ironically, has been grounded in the premise that we've acted as if resources were inexhaustible and were always going to be cheap; and that we could always discover new energy resources; and that there would never be any consequences to using them,” Dan Desmond, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine in 2009.

Fossil energy

By the mid-1800s, coal production and coal use was in full swing in the Pittsburgh region. Coal barges glided down the Monongahela River, some to factories on its banks and some to points beyond.

Railroads, fueled by coal, popped up to transport the product. Coke ovens, spewing dark clouds day and night, boosted the city’s profile as a major industrial hub.

They also gave Pittsburgh the distinction of being dubbed “The Smoky City.”

“‘Cloud by day and fire by night’ was the phrase used to characterize the region,” Tarr wrote in Energy Capitals.

Ineffective public policy efforts tried to limit the pollution, according to Tarr, but it was a brief decade at the end of the 19th century when natural gas became available, plentiful, and cheap that gave Pittsburgh a breather from the smoke.

As with many things, the commercial natural gas industry in this region got its start with George Westinghouse.

While gas was known to bubble up in streams for hundreds of years — and the first commercial gas well was drilled in Fredonia, New York, in 1821 — marketing the product to a wide swath of the public in Pittsburgh fell to the prolific inventor.

Westinghouse sunk a gas well on the property around his home in Homewood and used the fuel to supply a few neighbors while testing out inventions for gas production and distribution, according to a 2006 article in Pittsburgh Quarterly titled, “George Westinghouse: The mystery.”

He founded the Philadelphia Co. in the mid-1880s to produce and distribute gas and electricity in Pittsburgh.

By 1886, there were 16 natural gas companies in the city.

 

Shifting between coal, gas

But soon, there were concerns about the fuel running out. By the turn of the 19th century, Pittsburgh was shifting its reliance back to coal, with the exception of several industries such as glass manufacturing. In the 1920s, coal, which was once again cheaper than gas, returned in full force.

But gas began gaining on coal after the Great Depression, when incomes started rising and household appliances that used gas gained in popularity.

After World War II, ample gas supplies were piped in from discoveries in the southwestern part of the country, supplemented by conventional oil and gas production in Pennsylvania. In the last half a dozen years, shale gas further changed the dynamics in southwestern Pennsylvania and in other coal-dominated regions.

“These periods of energy transition are often driven by the same kinds of factors — the supply and demand, of course, and the price,” Tarr said.

Environmental considerations have always played a part as well, he said, although not with the same strength and national reach.

The trend for coal production over the past half century has been an unsteady decline, marked by small rebounds and falls, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Gas has experienced the opposite. Until a few years ago, its production was remarkably steady but it shot up in 2010. In 2012, for the first time overtook coal in total energy produced by 70 percent.

While the urgency of coal’s demise is being felt acutely today, its fall began almost a century ago. 

In 1918, Pennsylvania produced the most coal in its history — more than 277 million tons. Last year, production was closer to 54 million tons, according to data from the EIA.

Employment in the industry experienced a much steeper drop, however, illustrating how much more productive modern long-wall mining methods are than what companies were doing during coal’s heyday in the state. According to Mr. Tarr, the number of people working in Pennsylvania’s bituminous coal mines, which are located in the southwestern part of the state, was 170,000 in the early 1920s. In 2012, that number was less than 8,000.   

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

First Published September 17, 2014 12:00 AM

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