Until fairly recently, gas was regarded as a throwaway fuel. Where coal and oil are easy to ship, gas needs expensive pipelines, severely limiting its marketability. But that began to change in the 1980s. Not only were pipelines becoming cheaper to build, but energy companies had perfected ways of compressing gas into liquefied form—liquefied natural gas, or LNG—that can be shipped aboard huge tankers.
The more important change was in demand. As oil prices jumped in the 1970s, gas became more attractive for both consumers and industrial users, especially power utilities, which quickly turned gas into a rising energy star. Gas had far fewer environmental or political constraints than traditional power sources—coal and nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams. True, gas was slightly more expensive than coal. But a new gas-fired power plant was much cheaper to build than a coal plant and could be put up much faster. Gas turbines can also be started and stopped more quickly than coal-fired systems, allowing utilities to fire them up as needed: during periods of peak power demand, for example, or in emergencies, when other power sources fail. This is why more than 90 percent of new power plants in the United States burn gas and why gas-fired power has been the trend in Europe, Japan, and even the developing world.