Moment of Indiana History

The Gas Boom

The Department of Natural Resources' oil and gas division documents 338 active, permitted noncommercial gas wells in Indiana, with about ten added per year.

Peaking prices at the pump have fostered a number of creative strategies, including the exploration of alternative fuels and energy sources. Escalating oil costs have, however, only served to whet others’ appetite for fossil fuels. The current notion of reducing the dependence on foreign oil has meant coming up with a domestic supply of the stuff for some prospectors, and not just in Texas or Alaska. The Indianapolis Star reported in December 2005 on the growing trend of oil-drilling among landowners in east-central Indiana. The Department of Natural Resources’ oil and gas division documents 338 active, permitted noncommercial gas wells in this area, with approximately ten added per year.

The likelihood of striking it lucky, however, is slim; the oil field’s resources were largely depleted one hundred years ago. Early settlers in the state discovered oil serendipitously while drilling for salt-water, essential in agriculture and for preserving food. After oil began to demonstrate its potential in the eastern states, drilling intensified in Indiana in the second half of the nineteenth century. The discovery of gas near the town of Eaton in Delaware County in 1876 announced the presence of the nation’s first giant oil field. From 1886 through the first decade of the twentieth century, innumerable oil-wells were drilled into the Trenton Limestone Formation. Geologists have estimated that the Trenton Field contained anywhere from 100 million to a billion barrels of oil. The lure of a cheap and convenient energy source beckoned entrepreneurs to the area by the score, leading to the establishment of major industry in such cities as Muncie, Anderson, Marion and Kokomo. Auto-makers and glass manufacturers flourished during the so-called Gas Boom. The bubble burst all too quickly, however, due to mismanagement of the precious natural commodity that had brought it into being. Holes were being drilled willy-nilly, neither recorded nor plugged. The proximity of the drilling sites served to erode the overlying rocks and allow water to spill into the oil reserves. It is estimated that ninety percent of the gas was wasted through burning at the surface or contamination by water.

After the Trenton Field ran dry, speculators moved on to the southwestern corner of the state to extract oil from the Illinois Basin. Production of oil in Indiana peaked at 12 million barrels in 1956, diminishing substantially after that. The current vogue for non-commercial oil well drilling reprises similar trends in 1973 and 1979, during the energy crisis and the Iranian hostage situation, respectively. Drilling tapered off substantially in 1986, after a significant lowering in the cost of crude oil. Though oil exploration in Indiana these days is often a case of diminishing returns, it is speculated that there may be substantial reserves at the largely untapped subsurface level, especially in the southern part of the state.

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