Synthetic Fuels 1917—1973
Throughout most of the twentieth century, the United States had an abundance of fossil fuels in the form of coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Coal was a seemingly inexhaustible resource, but occasionally unanticipated shortages of petroleum and natural gas prompted calls for the production of synthetic fuels derived from coal and oil shale. Some of the technology to produce synthetic fuels had been developed long before there was a commercial petroleum industry. Kerosene, for example, was known as coal oil because it had been made at one time from the solid fossil fuel. Furthermore, there had been a thriving market for gas distilled from coal in the nineteenth century, and its widespread usage continued in some parts of the country, and abroad, until after World War II.
From time to time in the twentieth century, fears of petroleum shortages caused government bureaucrats and petroleum industry officials to ask Congress to create research programs designed to find cost-effective techniques for extracting oil from shale. On most occasions, Congress responded with legislation that authorized experimental programs designed to pave the way for the commercial production of synthetic fuels. However, the scarcity of petroleum always proved to be of brief duration, giving way to a condition of abundant cheap supplies that undermined and eventually forced the abandonment of synthetic-oil programs.