Could Pa. Gas Wells Contaminate the Father of Propane’s Hometown?

The former home of Walter O. Snelling, the father of propane, as seen today in Allentown, Pa. A local environmental group has warned that gas drilling in the state could threaten the area's drinking water. (image:

A Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club is warning that drilling for natural gas along the Marcellus shale could contaminate the drinking water in the state’s Lehigh Valley — which, by coincidence, is precisely where the scientist who first identified propane, Walter O. Snelling, lived out the last decades of his life.

At issue is a method of gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which involves injecting a cocktail of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to crack rock and release pockets of natural gas. Energy companies are deploying the technique along the Marcellus, a gas-rich rock formation that runs under West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The yield from the Marcellus is “wet” with natural gas liquids, (or NGLs), including propane.

Environmental advocates have said that fracking could poison drinking water for millions of residents around the shale. And a recent New York Times series on fracking’s impact, along with the Oscar-nominated documentary titled “Gasland,” have put a magnifying glass on the issue.

“The Marcellus natural gas drilling boom is the greatest natural threat to Pennsylvania in the last 50 years,” Don Miles, who heads the Lehigh Valley Sierra Club, told the (Easton) Express-Times this week.

Meanwhile, proponents of the drilling have called the recent coverage alarmist and misleading. And natural gas’ reputation has enjoyed a recent turnaround — both as a fuel and on the commodities market — following the ongoing nuclear disasters in Japan.

And what about Snelling? The father of propane did most of his early chemistry around Pittsburgh, where he first isolated the gas in 1910. He made a small fortune off his work, settled in the city of Allentown around 1940, and remained there until his death in 1965.

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