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U.S. Natural Gas Losses, Late 1870s to Early 1950s: A Compilation and Evaluation of Numerical Estimates


This paper’s purpose is to review large gas loss numbers (over ten million cubic feet, or 10 MMCF) that have been publically recorded about U. S. petroleum fields, wells and associated natural gasoline plants from the 1870s into the early 1950s. Claims that the 2015 Aliso Canyon natural gas storage release was the largest known anthropogenic methane loss (5 BCF) in U.S. history indicate how little is widely known about the past. The largest modern gas well blowout known to the author is the Key #1, Wheeler County, Texas. The well blew out on October 4, 1981, and was killed 16 months later, having lost about 14.4 BCF. Similar scales of natural gas losses are commonly reported in the old petroleum literature. The “wet” natural gas with oil fields was the greatest volume of gas loss from venting or flaring, as gas was mostly a waste product until the gasoline liquids had value and/or pipelines and markets were available. Over 200 numerical estimates of large (over 10 MMCF/day) natural gas losses, with some individual wells but mainly fields and regions, were reviewed and compiled. Loss examples from 1877 to 1900 are from the old producing areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, mostly well blowouts often at the scale of several tens of MMCF/day. Possibly one trillion cubic feet (one TCF) was lost in the regional gas caps of Ohio in the 1890s and Indiana in the early 1900s. The mid-continent fields of Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Texas were estimated to have released about three TCF from 1914-1919. Federal agencies regarded the worst gas losses of the 1900s to 1920s to be occurring in Oklahoma, Louisiana and California. Texas gas loss documentation is substantial for the 1930s-1940s. One of the larger blowouts may have been the 1939 Broussard #1 blowout, LaBelle Field, Texas (25,631 MMCF/year). The Panhandle Field losses are the most widely written about. The Murray committee report of 1945 stated that about 1.5 BCF of natural gas was wasted daily in the Panhandle Field. The U. S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) began receiving estimates of natural gas losses in 1935. Much vented or flared gas was not reported, especially from individual leases. Comparison of field, regional and U. S. estimates indicate that the latter numbers are probably highly underestimated. The USBM estimate of over one TCF gas loss did not occur until 1944, but probably the U.S. was annually wasting over one TCF by the early to mid-1920s.