Appalachian Basin

All Aboard: The Natural Gas Train Is Moving

What does modern natural gas development have in common with early railroads, electricity and indoor plumbing?  Well, each of those major Victorian age innovations spurred entire industries, replaced old ways of doing things and greatly improved people’s everyday lives.  Today we depend on railroads, electricity, and modern plumbing and take them for granted.  But when first introduced all were feared and vigorously opposed by much of the public.  Sound familiar?  History repeats itself.

Almost all railway construction in England during the 1820s – 40s was contested. Those who recognized the potential of the railway seemed overwhelmed by negative public response.  Railway historian Frederick S. Williams writes, “A rumor that it was proposed to bring such a thing as a railroad within a dozen miles of a particular neighborhood was enough to elicit adverse petitions to Parliament.”

A system of railway hearings was established in the House of Lords, requiring companies to weigh the potential benefit and harm of their proposed plans.  The most effective opposition movements took place largely during this period.  Editorials and pamphlets began to appear, arguing against proposed lines. People feared railway accidents, and the rising number of deaths at same-level crossings was cause for serious public alarm.

Cartoon expressing early opposition to trains in U.S.

To plead their case, in 1849 one R.M. Martin authored “Railways past, present, and prospective,” a positive endorsement that made an effort to sway public opinion.  By the second half of the century, railways had become a part of the landscape.  Railway historian W.T. Jackson, writing in 1916, could scarcely believe that some towns “rejected the boon that was offered them, and opposed the railways so strongly that they would not allow the company to build their line within the city limits.”  Later, these same towns worked to attract railways as a means of economic revitalization. All aboard.

There was also much public opposition to the development of alternating current electricity in the U.S. Critics, including Thomas Edison, argued that it was dangerous and a hazard to public health.  This idea was emphasized in the public mind by New York State’s adoption of electrocution for capital crimes. Undeterred, George Westinghouse proved the viability of AC electricity by lighting the entire Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  Quite a demonstration area.

Cartoon opposing replacement of horse drawn trams with electric trams

Those who attempted to bring plumbing indoors also faced attitudinal challenges. Many people thought indoor bathing was a health hazard. The prevailing “miasma” theory of disease held that illnesses stemmed from “bad air” that was identifiable by its offensive odor. In 1835, the Common Council of Philadelphia almost banned wintertime bathing (the ordinance failed by two votes). Ten years later, Boston forbade indoor bathing except on specific medical advice. Home rule.

Not that there weren’t problems with these new technologies. The number of accidents at railway crossings, including one involving Charles Dickens, was cause for alarm.  Early indoor plumbing tended to leak and people feared sewer gas until proper venting came along. But new technologies advance much more quickly now.

Hydraulic fracturing began in the 1950’s and the combination of high volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal boring of wells has been used safely for many years to develop thousands of gas wells.  Problems are few and becoming fewer all the time. And, unlike all those other innovations hydraulic fracturing has never seriously harmed anyone.  Science.

Change is one of the defining characteristics of the Victorian age as well as our own. “Better safe than sorry” (the layman’s explanation of the precautionary principle) is really code for I don’t want to change.  Opposition to change is certainly nothing new.  It’s human nature. But change will come. Nobody wants to go back to covered wagons, reading by candle light and outhouses.  Well, almost nobody. So New York, get on board. Shale gas is a locomotive about to leave the station. Next stop – prosperity.


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