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For most of human history, fire was the main source of energy. Wood, charcoal, and then coal provided fuel for fire. Over the years, however, people have acquired a more sophisticated knowledge of fuels and energy.
The natural gas industry established itself in the early 19th century. In Britain, the first gas company was founded in 1812. The first American company opened in Baltimore in 1817. However, the oil rush of 1859 and the introduction of the electric light in 1879 thwarted the natural gas industry. Gas lights had been more effective and easier to use than kerosene lamps, but electric lighting became even more popular. Though used less and less for lighting, gas was still the primary fuel for cooking and even today maintains a share of that market.When huge reserves of natural gas were discovered in the Southwest in the early 1900s, the production of natural gas increased to 800 billion cubic feet a year. Further increases in the production of natural gas have been dependent on the development of pipelines that carry the gas to potential market areas.The internal combustion engine, patented in 1838, set the stage for gasoline's popularity as a fuel. Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir built a single-cylinder engine in 1860, and by 1865, 400 copies of it were being used in Paris to power such machines as printing presses and water pumps.With the development of the automobile, the demand for gasoline grew dramatically. World War II further increased the dependence on gasoline and other petroleum products by creating a demand for fuel for tanks, ships, and other wartime vehicles. This stimulated the need for exploration of a large number of oil wells across the country.By the 1970s, the demand for oil had increased to the extent that Western nations could no longer supply enough oil to meet their own needs and were forced to import it from Middle Eastern countries. When these Middle Eastern countries gained control over the quantity and the price of oil being sold, they formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which became one of the major influences on the world economy during this period.The exploration, production, and delivery of energy extracts a large price from the environment. An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 resulted in a leak that gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for many weeks. The leak, located on the sea floor, was sealed in August 2010 when estimates were that more than 100 million barrels worth of oil had been released, making the offshore spill the largest in U.S. history. Damage to the Gulf waters and coast affected many industries and a wide range of wildlife. Oil from the spill reached as far as Florida, and projections were that cleanup and recovery could take years.The energy companies' desire to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and other important ecosystems such as Alaska's huge Arctic Wildlife Refuge continues to meet with great opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas exploration and extraction alter the environment. Another challenge is to find more efficient ways to use nonrenewable energy sources and to harness energy from renewable sources, such as the sun, wind, and sea.Until the 1930s, hydroelectric power was responsible for providing most electricity because hydroplants were less expensive to operate than those that relied on thermal energy released by burning fuels like coal. Today, hydroelectric plants, which are often located at river dams, are just one source among many for generating energy. Hydropower supplies about 10 percent of the nation's energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.Nuclear energy has played an important role in the energy industry since World War II, when the first atomic bombs were exploded. There are more than 100 nuclear power plants operating in the United States.However, several serious accidents at large nuclear reactors, specifically Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, have provoked widespread fear about the dangers of radioactive contamination. In March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that followed it disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, leading to a nuclear accident. These kinds of accidents along with nuclear wastes produced by these facilities have made nuclear power much less attractive to the general public.During the 2000s, the demand for alternative fuel sources increased, but then subsided somewhat by the 2010s when hydraulic fracturing enabled oil and natural gas companies to tap into reserves of these fuels that could last up to 100 years by some estimates. Oil companies also began extracting oil from tar sands located on the surface, primarily in Canada and Eastern Utah. It is a more costly and complicated process that many environmentalists are opposed to. TransCanada, a company based in Alberta, Canada, has filed for permission to build a 1,179-mile pipeline running from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska. It would be able to transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day. Fears of the environmental impact, especially in the case of leaks, have led to much debate and as of 2013, the U.S. government had not given the company permission to build it.