Extracting gas from shale is nothing new

Reading the article Rediscovering Natural Gas By Hitting Rock Bottom about the recent discovery of ways of extracting gas from shale at great depths in areas like Pennsylvania, reminded me of the story of James Paraffin Young, whom Scots claim to be the father of the oil industry.

James Young (1811-1883) was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a carpenter. When he was 19 he went to the Anderson Institution, now Strathclyde University, where he studied with Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Graham.

Young was brilliant and soon patented ways of using naphtha as a fuel. He went on to extract oil from cannel coal found in near by West Lothian and in 1851 set up a commercial oil works at Whiteside near Bathgate, West Lothian. After that he found ways of extracting paraffin from oil shale, which is plentiful in the area and made millions doing so.

According to the late Professor Bill Fletcher of Strathclyde University, "Companies were springing up like mushrooms all under licence to Young. At its peak the shale oil industry was employing some 13,000 men in West Lothian and producing lamp oils, power oil, lighthouse oil, candles, sulphate of ammonia, and later, fuel oil (for furnaces and diesel engines) and even petrol - "Ross Petrol - the Best and Most Economical Motor Spirit in the Market - and it is home-made by James Ross & Co., Philipstoun Oil Works, Linlithgow."

(There is a display of many different types of paraffin lamps at the Hastings Museum of Agricultural Heritage in Stirling.)

Paraffin Young had business interests in America. He went there in 1859 to collect his royalties and visited the great Drake oil well in Pennsylvania, which was ushering in the petroleum age that was soon to cast a shadow over the shale industry. It was easier to extract the petroleum than to extract oil for shale. By 1873 the number of plants in West Lothian was reduced to 30 and by 1905 it was down to 13.

At the Drake Oil Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, they claim Edwin Drake, rather than James Paraffin Young, started the oil industry in 1859. It is interesting that Pennsylvania could now be seeing the birth of a new oil shale industry. I also wonder whether or not there are oil shale deposits deep down below our side of Lake Ontario.