Crude Oil Discovery”The Black Gold”

In 1859, Edwin L. Drake, a retired railroad conductor, using an old steam engine, drilled a well 70 feet [22 meters] deep to the first crude oil discovered near Titusville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. That marked the beginning of the oil era. As oil was discovered in many parts of the world, it caused great economic and political repercussions. It proved to be the high-quality source of artificial light that the world eagerly awaited.

Soon, frantic buying of land and drilling of wells was a major activity in the so-called oil regions of the United States. In those years it was common to hear of people who suddenly became wealthy and of others who later lost their fortunes. Ironically, Edwin Drake, the man who drilled the first well in Pennsylvania, was one of the latter.

Despite its extraordinary boom, or perhaps because of it, the oil industry in Pennsylvania soon experienced its first drop. Oil fell from $20 a barrel to 10 cents! Overproduction and speculation made prices collapse, and some wells rapidly became exhausted. A special reminder of those times is Pithole City, Pennsylvania, which today is a ghost town. It was established, it flourished, and it was deserted—all within the span of little more than one and a half years. Those ups and downs would become an integral part of oil history.

In 1870, John D. Rockefeller and a few associates incorporated the Standard Oil Company. This company dominated the kerosene market until competitors appeared, especially in the Russian oil industry. One rival was Marcus Samuel, a founder of what is today known as the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. In addition, as a result of the ingenuity of the Nobel brothers, a powerful oil enterprise was established in Russia with the oil extracted from fields in Baku.

Those were the beginnings of the history of a series of oil enterprises. Since then, alliances and organizations have been created to avoid the price and production instability of the early times. One of them is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), whose 11 members collectively possess most of the world’s proven crude-oil reserves.

By the end of the 19th century, the widespread use of electricity could have meant bankruptcy for the oil enterprises. However, another outstanding invention had drastically reversed the situation—the internal-combustion engine, used mainly in automobiles. Gasoline, a petroleum derivative, was now essential for self-propelled vehicles, which were already available in most industrialized nations by the late 1920’s. Now much more oil was needed to keep the world moving, but where would it be found?

With passing years, oil’s supremacy in the global market has been reinforced by the ongoing discovery of new oil fields in various parts of the world—some 50,000 of them! But in terms of production, the important factor is, not the number of fields discovered, but their size. How big are they?

Oil fields that contain at least five billion barrels of recoverable oil—called supergiants—are the largest in the classification, while the second largest (from five hundred million to five billion barrels) are called world-class giants. Although some 70 countries are listed in the “U.S. Geological Survey World Petroleum Assessment 2000” as having some oil reserves, only a few of them have giant oil fields.The largest number of supergiant oil fields are grouped in the Arabian-Iranian sedimentary basin, which comprises the area in and around the Persian Gulf.

The search for new oil sources has not stopped. Instead, it has been reinforced by state-of-the-art technology. Currently the Caspian Sea region, made up of the nations of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, has caught the attention of oil producers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, this region has huge potential for the exploitation of oil and natural gas. Alternative exportation routes, such as through Afghanistan, are being studied. Additional potential has also been found in the Middle East, Greenland, and parts of Africa. The conversion of discoveredhydrocarbons into energy and items for use in everyday life is a story in itself.

How Is Oil Extracted?

Geologists and surveyors search for places where crude oil could be trapped underground. After performing some specific measurements and taking samples, they drill to confirm that there is actually oil. In the early days, successfully hitting an oil field might have meant being showered by a gusher of mud and oil, with the consequent loss of the initial outpouring and the risk of explosion. However, by means of measuring instruments and special valves, today’s drilling rigs prevent this from happening. Smaller and deeper drillings are also possible today.

Eventually, the pressure that makes the oil and gas emerge decreases, and it must be maintained by the injection of water, chemicals, carbon dioxide, or other gases, such as nitrogen. Depending on the zone, oil can have different degrees of density. Naturally, light oil is by far preferred, for it is easier to obtain and refine.

As explained by the American Petroleum Institute, modern technology includes horizontal drilling, done virtually parallel to the earth’s crust, which reduces the number of wells that must be bored. Offshore extraction, which began in 1947 in the Gulf of Mexico, greatly increased oil production. Of course, the extraction method used has a direct effect on the price of the final product.

How Is Oil Transported?

In 1863 in Pennsylvania, small-diameter wooden pipelines were built for transporting oil, as they were cheaper and less cumbersome to use than 42-gallon [159 L] barrels moved on horse carts. Today’s pipeline systems have evolved and multiplied. According to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, the United States alone has a network of 200,000 miles [300,000 km] of petroleum pipeline!

Such pipeline systems, mainly made of metal, transport not only crude oil to refineries but also final oil products to distributors. Modern pipeline technology allows for automated systems that monitor flow and pressure. So-called intelligent pigs (devices used to inspect hundreds of miles of pipeline), Magnetic Flux Leakage inspection, and ultrasonic in-line inspection have also been developed. Yet, all that the ordinary user of the final products will probably see is a sign indicating that a petroleum pipeline lies underground and warning that no digging should be done at the site.

As useful as it is, though, a pipeline system is not practical for the transportation of large quantities of oil overseas. But early oil entrepreneurs found a solution for that too—immense oil tankers. These are specially designed ships as much as a quarter of a mile long [400 meters long]. Tankers are the largest ships to sail the oceans and are able to carry up to a million or more barrels of oil. Unfortunately, as mighty as they look, tankers have a vulnerability that has not been surmounted, as the box “About Oil Spills” shows. Barges and railcars are also common means of bulk oil transportation. Nevertheless, in oil’s journey, transportation is only half the story.

A small flame coming from a tall pipe stack, or flare—which acts as a safety valve—is a good indication that you are looking at an oil refinery. Basically, in these huge refining facilities, crude oil is heated and sent to an atmospheric distillation tower, where it is separated into several fractions. These fractions range from the lightest—gases, such as butane—to the heaviest, which are processed into lubricants, among other products.


The first Pennsylvania oil companies shipped oil in 48-gallon [180 L] wine barrels. Eventually only 42 gallons [159 L] of oil was put in to allow for spillage during shipment. A barrel (42 gallons) is still used today for oil commerce.

From the beginning, oil for Europe was transported by sea and was usually measured by weight, in tons, as is the practice today.


The opinion that has prevailed among most scientists since the 1870’s is called the biogenic theory. This “holds that biological debris buried in sediments decays into oil and natural gas in the long course of time and that this petroleum then becomes concentrated in the pore space of sedimentary rocks in the uppermost layers of the [Earth’s] crust.” This process then produces petroleum, whose main components are hydrocarbons—that is, hydrogen and carbon. However, since the 1970’s this theory has at times been challenged by some scientists.

In the August 20, 2002, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the article “The Genesis of Hydrocarbons and the Origin of Petroleum” was published. The authors argue that the origin of natural petroleum must occur at depths that are “well into the mantle of the Earth” and not at the much shallower depths generally accepted.

Physicist Thomas Gold has suggested some controversial theories and explains his reasons in detail in his book The Deep Hot Biosphere—The Myth of Fossil Fuels. He writes: “The theory of the biological origin of hydrocarbons was so favored in the United States and in much of Europe that it effectively shut out work on the opposing viewpoint. This was not the case in the countries of the former Soviet Union.” That was “probably because the revered Russian chemist Mendeleyev had supported the abiogenic [not biological] view. The arguments he presented are even stronger today, given the greatly expanded information we now have.” What is the abiogenic view?

Gold states: “The abiogenic theory holds that hydrocarbons were a component of the material that formed the earth, through accretion of solids, some 4.5 billion years ago.” According to this theory, the elements of petroleum have been deep in the earth since the earth’s formation.

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