homenews and insights 3 000 years of natural gas

3,000 years of natural gas

By Dr Andrew Eaton
22 April 2020

Product Marketing Manager

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A collection of wild bamboo

The need to respond to the current climate emergency is calling into question our reliance on natural gas; something we have been doing for over 3,000 years.

Millions of years ago the oceans were filled with plants and plankton which fell to the bottom when they died and were buried by layers of sand and mud. Over millions of years, a combination of heat and pressure turned them into coal, oil, and gas. Often the oceans dried out leaving an impermeable layer of salt, what geologists call a ‘salt plug’, which kept them trapped deep underground. However, movements in the Earth’s crust caused by the shifting of the continental (tectonic) plates mean that in some areas the gas, which is lighter than air could escape and make its way to the surface.

Lightning strikes were probably responsible for igniting these gaseous jets and must have been something of a mystery to early people who attributed them to magic or the work of the gods, and so were the cause of much superstition and myths.

Ancient Greece

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘burning springs’ was found on Mount Parnassus by a goat herdsman in Ancient Greece around 1,000 BCE. Believing it to be divine in origin they built a temple around it. A high priestess, who became known as the Oracle of Delphi, was housed there and gave prophecies to pilgrims which, she claimed, were caused by inhaling the fumes from the flame.


500 years later, in 500 BCE the Chinese found a way to use these fires as a resource. Having found places where the gas was seeping from the surface, they piped it using bamboo shoots to burn under pans of brine to evaporate the water leaving behind the salt. Possibly the first instance of bamboo being used as ‘plant’!

North America

As far back as 1,626 Native Americans were observed by French explorers igniting gas streams that were seeping into and around Lake Erie. Although it is not recorded what they were using it for, it was most likely an alternative to burning wood for warmth, which would make it the first gas fire in history.

United Kingdom

The UK was the first country to commercialise the use of gas, for home and street lighting in 1,785, although the gas used was actually synthetic, being produced from Coal.

In May 1964 the ‘UK Continental Shelf Act’ came into force and a year later seismic exploration of the North Sea began. Whilst drilling for oil began almost immediately, it wasn’t until December 1965 that gas was discovered in what became the Viking gas field, with many others in the North Sea following.

The Future

With the national net-zero carbon target and SSE committing to reduce the carbon intensity of the electricity that we generate by 50% compared to 2018 levels to around 150g CO2/kWh, by 2030, after 3,000 years of use, natural gas no longer looks to be playing a part in our future energy portfolio.

At SSE Energy Solutions, we really understand energy. Whether you simply want to save energy, or are looking to support a greener future in order to save the planet – we can help.

Call us on 0345 072 9529, or email us at info@sseenergyoptimisation.co.uk.