Natural gas is an abundant, affordable and safe fuel source that we often don’t think about simply because we can’t see it. Buried deep underground in deposits across North America, this clean energy source powers so much of our everyday lives — and we need it now more than ever to meet the world’s fast-growing demand for energy.
This powerful energy wellspring is a treasured American resource that not only boosts our economy and provides jobs, but also yields several chemical compounds central to the creation of the plastics and other common materials we rely on each day.
Natural gas heats our water, fires up our stoves and powers our electricity. Some of the products natural gas helps to make possible include fabrics, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals, to name just a few. Natural gas has risen to become the second-largest fuel source in Colorado, and its use is quickly expanding across the country.
While natural gas benefits all of us in a myriad of convenient and sometimes surprising ways today, its fascinating past — and how it’s sourced here in Colorado — is also quite interesting.
Tapping Into the Geologic Past
Turning the clock back one hundred million years ago finds the majority of western Colorado submerged beneath the ocean. As the Centennial State’s ancient and shallow shores ebbed and flowed over millions of years before vanishing, a bountiful blanket of microscopic organisms became locked into what was then the seafloor. Among them were myriad tiny sea creatures not unlike plankton.
Over time, these minute life forms were embedded in the shores. Rich with natural energy sources, they were eventually coated by thick, heavy layers of mud and silt. As the years passed, the organisms’ remains were bored down upon by the predecessors of what we now call coral. More and more sediment covered the coral, and the process repeated over and over again. Finally, the tides vanished altogether and left the region dry.
Crushed for millions of years beneath the coral-like deposits and sediment — and further transformed by seismic shifts and volcanic activity — the organisms decomposed yet more. In the end, this long process resulted in a robust blend of natural resource-packed hydrocarbons tucked miles beneath the Earth’s surface.
Many of these hydrocarbon deposits broke apart over time under pressure, and thicker compounds and chemicals sank to the bottom and became crude oil. Meanwhile, the lighter, thinner gas liquids such as propane and butane made their way toward the top.
Methane, which we now know as natural gas, is the lightest and cleanest among these hydrocarbon compounds. In some areas of the world, the natural gas escaped the sedimentary rock zones and accumulated in giant caverns beneath the earth. In other geologic areas, including the Front Range of Colorado, impervious rock layers above kept the natural gas locked into sedimentary rock called shale.
From Fossils to Fuels
This is where energy companies come in. Exploration and production companies extract oil and gas from mineral deposits discovered in Colorado and elsewhere across the country. In the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, natural gas is found primarily in shale formations. Extracting it requires horizontal drilling through hydrocarbon-rich zones in the shale and the use of a mix of water and sand pumped underground at high pressure to create hairline cracks in the surrounding shale rock.
This safe and decades-old process enables the trapped natural gas and oil to more easily flow into the wellbore and be captured, leading to more and cleaner energy for us all.
Colorado’s impressive geological history is crucial to the state’s economic present — and to its bright future. The oil and natural gas industry, which contributes more than $26 billion in annual state gross domestic product and more than $1 billion in tax revenue, helped propel Colorado to its ranking as the fifth-fastest-growing economy in the United States. Safely harvesting the plentiful fossil fuels remaining in the land that forms the foundation of Colorado will better power our world and benefit our people, cities, towns and communities now and in the future.