History of Energy in Pennsylvania

This content is taken from The Pennsylvania Manual. Please see the Department of General Services' Web site for the most up-to-date copy.

Lumber, Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Coal
(From 1861-1945: Era of Industrial Ascendancy)

Pennsylvania has exercised leadership in the extractive industries of lumber, petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Many of the natural stands of timber were exhausted before conservation concepts were recognized. In the 1860s the state led the nation in lumber production, but by 1900 it had dropped to fourth. During that period, Williamsport's log boom on the Susquehanna had been the world's largest lumber pile. Twentieth-century timber conservation planning owes much to Gifford Pinchot, the nation's first professional forester. Actual replanting of trees and the state's purchase of land that had been denuded by private lumber enterprisers were programs initiated in the late 1930s and the post-World War II periods.

Following the discovery of oil near Titusville in 1859, the production and marketing of Pennsylvania oil grew. The oil-producing counties extended from Tioga west to Crawford and south to the West Virginia line. By 1891 Warren, Venango, and McKean counties established leadership in production. Once practical methods of transmitting and burning natural gas were developed, Pennsylvania also became a leading producer in that area. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company was always foremost in the refining and marketing petroleum. The early lead Pennsylvania achieved in oil made the Keystone State the natural battleground for competing investors. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1868 and, as a result of a freight price rebate deal with the New York Central Railroad, it grew to be the world's largest refinery by 1870. To overwhelm Pennsylvania's small independent refiners, he engaged in secret agreements with such powerful interests as the Pennsylvania Railroad. He allowed the independent refiners to survive – they finally merged into the Pure Oil Company just before 1900 – as long as they did not undersell Standard Oil. The corporate organizing of refiners in Pennsylvania before 1900 is one reason the state would long continue to be a leading refining area even though the crude oil had to be almost entirely imported. Natural gas, more dangerous to harness for industrial or household use than oil, was also used extensively as soon as ways to transmit it were developed. The plate glass industry got a major boost because gas ignition could so rapidly produce the high temperatures the glass process needed. But in a few years the great abundance of gas subsided.

Anthracite coal was the main fuel used to smelt iron until the 1880s, when the manufacture of coke from bituminous coal was developed to a degree that it replaced anthracite. Coke was used both to smelt iron and to make steel from iron. But production of anthracite continued to increase because it was used for heating and other purposes. The bituminous and coke industries were responsible for the late nineteenth century industrial growth of western Pennsylvania; the iron ore deposits there would not alone have merited such growth. World War I caused two years (1917-1918) of the largest production of both types of coal the state has ever seen. In the 1920s a new coke-making process produced valuable by-products, making the old beehive coke ovens obsolete. The new coke plants were built, in many cases, outside of Pennsylvania. A declining market for coal in the 1920s caused business and labor problems. These increased in the 1930s during the nation's economic depression. Production demands in World War II revived the coal industry for those few years. In its heyday the industry was notorious for its work hazards. Between 1902 and 1920, mine accident deaths occurred on an average of 525 per year.

Energy Resources
(From 1945-2005: Maturity)

The market for Pennsylvania's coal began to decline at the end of World War II. Oil and natural gas were by then regarded as so much more convenient to use that they replaced anthracite coal for heating buildings. The 1959 Knox Mine disaster in Luzerne County, and resulting investigations and criminal proceedings, revealed the extent of corruption that had gripped the anthracite industry. The disaster and its aftermath brought about an end to deep mining in a large part of the anthracite region. Today, Pennsylvania's anthracite production remains steady, usually amounting to no more than five percent of bituminous tonnage; most anthracite is now produced by surface mining and refuse reprocessing. In 2005, anthracite mines produced 2,239,073 tons, whereas recovery from refuse sites produced 4,223,507 tons of this very valuable fuel. Only 189,899 of the mined tonnage came from underground operations at 17 mines, a remarkably small amount when compared with statistics from the early twentieth century. In 2005 there were 697 anthracite miners, but only 128 of them worked underground.

In the 1960s the bituminous market revived because larger amounts were put to use to produce electric power, even though the market for industrial coke was dropping as the steel industry showed signs of decline. Pennsylvania stood at a competitive disadvantage to Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky because of the sulfur content in its bituminous and our state's stiff environmental regulations. The period between 1975 and 1995 was not favorable to the Pennsylvania coal industry, with the state's share of national output shrinking from nearly 15 percent to under 6 percent in 1995. While U.S. production rose 71 percent from 1970 to 1995, Pennsylvania's output dropped by 22 percent. West Virginia and Kentucky lead the Commonwealth by substantial production margins, and Wyoming, in first place, mines more than four and a half times as much coal as Pennsylvania. A large proportion of Pennsylvania's production decline has been in the surface mining component of the industry since 1977, the year Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Production from the state's surface operations has fallen over 70 percent since its peak that year.

Mining methods became much more efficient over the course of the twentieth century. Traditional "room and pillar" mines had been improved in the 1940s by conveyor equipment and rotating drums that shredded coal surfaces with dramatic speed, but more significant was the adoption of longwall mining operations for bituminous, beginning in the 1960s. In these arrangements powerful shredders move back and forth along walls sometimes over two miles long, with the machine operators protected by overhead covers made of steel. No coal is wasted to provide supporting pillars because the mined out longwall areas are simply left to collapse, often causing subsidence on surfaces above. Not needing support pillars, longwalling allows mining at much deeper levels, levels where any safe pillars for traditional mining would have had to be so large that little coal could have been produced. Surface subsidence caused by longwalling, however, has drawn criticism. The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and the 1971 Federal Clean Air Act initially impacted worker productivity and placed Pennsylvania's coal at a disadvantage by cleanliness standards because of its high sulfur content. The problem was exacerbated by emissions requirements in 1990's Clean Air Act acid rain amendments. Eventually concentration on low sulfur coal veins and improved scrubbing technology restored Pennsylvania's bituminous competitive status. Beginning in 1997, bituminous underground mines returned to production levels not seen since 1970, so that while surface production continues to be small, the subsurface operations carry the total production to robust levels. In 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, total bituminous production (from underground, surface mining, and reclamation) was 73,080,672 tons, of which 54,979,266 tons was produced from 43 underground mine sites. By 2007, the number of underground bituminous mines has decreased to 39. Far fewer seams for profitable surface mining remain, whereas deep mining has been spurred by the shift to the extremely efficient longwall technology. Geologically, the Pittsburgh Coal Seam underlying several western Pennsylvania counties is ideally suited for longwalls because it has six-toeight foot seam heights and relatively good roof and floor conditions. Although Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky continue to produce more coal than Pennsylvania, the outlook for Pennsylvania coal is still favorable. In 2004, nearly 74% of Pennsylvania's bituminous was sold for electric power generation, about half of which was distributed outside Pennsylvania. Longwall operations were responsible for about 83 percent of subsurface bituminous production in 2000.

However, a new criticism has emerged more recently with the recognition that coal poses another hazard to humanity. Highlighted by former Vice-President Al Gore's alarming presentation to Congress in March 2007, the validity of the theory that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions will subject mankind to a long future of increasing global warming is finally accepted by a preponderance of scientists. Carbon dioxide emission produced by burning coal has been identified as a major factor in this trend. Complex emission control technology of the "capture and store" type is envisioned for industrial sites that rely on coal fuel, but none is yet in large scale use. Despite the recent concern about global warming, "gasified" coal is being advanced as an alternative energy source to replace the world's shrinking natural gas and oil reserves. In 2005 there were 4,322 employees at Pennsylvania's underground bituminous mines and 2,085 at bituminous surface mines. Some western Pennsylvania companies have started miner training programs because the pool of veteran miners from the decades of high production is no longer available. The rescue of nine trapped miners at Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, in July 2002, was a triumph of the human spirit greeted with compassion by the public, but it also underscored the need for uninterrupted, diligent safety oversight at all underground operations.

Although once a leader in petroleum production, Pennsylvania now produces very little crude oil. Its production of natural gas, however, is still very abundant. In 2005 Pennsylvania's gas utility industry ranked seventh among the states in gas b.t.u.'s sold, and fifth in the amount sold only for residential use.

Pennsylvania's nine nuclear energy plants, located at five plant sites, produced 36 percent of the state's electricity in 2004, and make our state the second most productive state in nuclear generated kilowatt hours, just behind Illinois. Many Americans have objected strongly to nuclear power plants as health hazards and point to the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island generating station in March 1979. However, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as well as the federal government closely regulate all nuclear plants for safety. Four of Pennsylvania's five plant sites have two operating units: Berwick, Beaver Valley at Midland, Limerick, and Peach Bottom. The plant at Three Mile Island, near Middletown, was built with two units, but following the 1979 accident the core of the damaged unit was removed, leaving it inoperative. The other unit was not dam aged and is still producing power. Efforts to establish low-level radiation waste storage areas within Pennsylvania have been defeated in the legislature, and nuclear waste is now shipped to sites in South Carolina, Utah, and a few small toxic dumps elsewhere.

Under the administration of Governor Edward G. Rendell, a number of alternative energy projects have been underway, and more research in this area is enthusiastically supported. Travelers can see one of these when passing the large energy generating wind mills that are visible from several highways.