Ten years after the California gold rush in 1849, a retired railroad conductor by the name of "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake changed civilization forever when he drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Now, 150 years later, it's hard to imagine what our lives would be like without the multitude of products made from petroleum and its by-products.

Everyone knows that petroleum products in the form of coal or natural gas heat our homes and that gasoline fuels our automobiles. But did you know that there are about 6,000 products made from petroleum? From house paint to hang gliders, from CDs to soft contact lenses, our lives are much easier and more enjoyable because of products made from petroleum.

Americans, with their inventive and entrepreneurial spirit, have an unsuitable thirst for oil and its products. The United States is the third-largest oil producing country in the world, but it is the greatest consumer of oil products. The American Petroleum Institute estimates that the United States consumed 18.6 million barrels of oil a day in 1997. When figures are calculated by the end of the decade (and century), the number is expected to be near the twenty-million-barrel-a-day.

Petroleum, both oil and natural gas-supplies 65 percent of the energy used in the United States, according to information from the American Petroleum Institute. Of that amount, oil provides about 40 percent of the energy Americans consume and 97 percent of our transportation fuels. Natural gas provides 25 percent of our energy needs.

Estimating a future consumption growth rate of 1 to 2 percent annually and probable future oil discoveries. The United States Geological Survey estimates that between 1.4 trillion and 2.1 trillion barrels of oil remain to be produced worldwide enough to last sixty-three to ninety-five years.


By definition, petroleum, in the strictest sense of the word, is crude oil as it comes out of the ground. It is a mixture of several chemical compounds, primarily hydrogen and carbon. In a broader sense, and for the purpose of this book, petroleum also is defined as all hydrocarbons, including oil, natural gas, natural gas liquids, and all related products. Petroleum also can exist as a solid, such as the tar sands found in some parts of Canada and the oil shale beds located in some western U.S. states.

Even after two hundred years, the origin of black gold, as it is sometimes called, remains the subject of debate. Since the mid-nineteenth century, scientists have variously believed that petroleum comes from coal, decayed animals and vegetables, and even volcanic matter. Today, the debate still continues in some scientific circles as to whether oil is organic (plant or vegetable matter) or inorganic (not living).

The general consensus among the majority of earth scientists, however, is that the petroleum produced today was formed over a period of millions of years when plant and animal matter was compressed as it settled at the bottom of prehistoric seabeds. This matter, covered with layers and layers of sediment, was changed into hydrocarbons through a combination of factors, including bacteria, heat, and pressure.

Oil was first believed to flow under the earth much like an underground stream of water. Further study throughout the years led scientists to learn that oil actually exists between geological structures in areas called reservoirs. The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), one of the industry's largest professional organizations, compares a reservoir rock to a tray of marbles. "The tray is porous, with open spaces between the grains of the rock, just as there is open space between the marbles," according to the SPE. "When we place the crude oil in the tray, it occupies the pore space in the same way the crude oil occupies pore space in the reservoir rock."

Oil reservoirs may be a few thousand or many thousands of feet below the surface. How permeable-or how easy the oil or gas flows through connecting pore spaces-determines how easy it will be to remove the petroleum from the ground. How petroleum is found and removed from these reservoirs will be discussed in a later chapter.


From the beginning of time, humans have learned to be self-sufficient as they designed ingenious methods of utilizing the earth's many treasures. The earliest use of petroleum, scientists believe, occurred when natural seepages of both crude oil and natural gas were used by primitive tribes to light their fires. And, according to several versions of the story of the Great Flood, Noah used pitch-a form of natural asphaltic petroleum-as a caulking material to waterproof his Ark.

Indian tribes are said to have used asphalt from the seeps at Santa Barbara, California, as a sealant for their canoes, as well as for war paints and medicines. And archaeologists believe the ancient Egyptians used the same substance as a lubricant on chariot wheels. Not to be outdone, the Greeks are said to have used petroleum to set the sea on fire to destroy a fleet of ships belonging to an enemy threatening to invade them.

It is said that by the Middle Ages, Sicilians were gathering oil off their coast to use as fuel for lamps. Europeans, in the meantime, skimmed the natural springs for oil that was used for medicinal purposes, as well as for fuel.

It was the inventive Chinese, however, who first drilled for petroleum. Using primitive drilling tools, they bored eight hundred feet into the earth. The year 347 A.D, fifteen centuries before the birth of the modern-day petroleum industry!


The Chinese also were the first to use natural gas-2,000 years ago-to evaporate seawater for salt.
Like oil, natural gas was formed millions of years ago from organic matter compressed by mud and sand as it lay on the bottom of oceans. When the top layers hardened into rock, it created tremendous pressure and, combined with the heat from the earth, the organic matter became what we now call fossil fuels. Most natural gas is found in areas located near prehistoric mountain ranges.

Other early users were the North American colonists who found that natural gas seeps in creeks and swamps could be ignited. William A. Hart, who is commonly known as the "father of natural gas," drilled the first commercial well in 1821 in Fredonia, New York. Hart, a gunsmith by trade, dug a twenty-seven-foot well near a natural gas spring and piped natural gas through hollow logs to nearby stores. In 1858, the Fredonia Gas Light Co. was established to provide gas service to local residents.

When the blue flame gas burner was invented in 1855, it allowed gas to burn efficiently with a hot, smokeless flame. This paved the way for the use of gas for cooking purposes. By 1890,500 miles of pipe carried natural gas to homes and businesses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, making it the first large-scale user of the fuel. In the 1950s, pipelines were in place across the country, transporting natural gas to distant markets.


By the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans were using oil and gas taken directly from natural deposits on the earth's surface. While they knew these substances burned and could, therefore, be used for light, these pioneers still preferred to use whale oil and tallow candles for heating and lighting purposes. When whale oil began to become more scarce, and, as a result, more expensive, Americans decided to search for an alternative fuel source. These early oil users soon found out, however, that the three-gallon per day production they were getting from naturally occurring oil pools was not nearly enough to meet the growing demands of an expanding nation.

In 1854, Yale University Professor Benjamin Sillman and a group of businesspeople, headed by James M. Townsend, formed what is probably the first oil company in the world-the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. This company later became the Seneca Oil Company.

The group had in its possession a report that detailed the suitability of petroleum as a lighting fuel. Based on this report, the group members decided to attempt the recovery of large amounts of petroleum by taking a cue from water well diggers; they would drill for it.

These early oil people hired retired railroad conductor "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake to drill along the banks of Oil Creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania, an area located near an old oil spring. To drill the well, Drake's crew used an old steam engine with an iron bit connected to a rope. This was attached to a wooden winch mechanism they used for hoisting. After months of tedious drilling, the crew hit rock at the thirty-foot level. Boring through this hard surface was even more difficult, and the crew's progress slowed down to only three feet a day. By this time, the company's investors were growing more and more disgruntled at the lack of finding oil and named the operation "Drake's Folly."

The crew was not to be deterred, however. On August 27 1859 at sixty-nine and a half feet, a dark, green liquid spewed a few feet in the air from the well. By the second day, the well was producing eight to ten barrels of oil a day, and Drake's drillers made history as the first to drill a well for the express purpose of finding oil.

History books, while covering the significance of the Pennsylvania discovery, rarely mention a second related historical event. On October 7, 1859, the well was destroyed when gas from the well ignited. New equipment was moved in shortly thereafter, and the well was revived. Thus, Drake's Folly also is recorded in petroleum history as the first oil well fire on record. But more importantly, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company had proved the feasibility of boring through the earth's crust for a substance that was to change the world forever. The oil "boom" was on.


Just like the gold rush to California only ten years earlier, oil towns sprang up literally overnight as prospectors rushed to Pennsylvania to seek their fortunes. As the amount of oil drilled increased, the problem of storing and transporting the oil became a problem. But for barrel makers, known in those days as coopers, the fledgling industry provided a new outlet for their wooden casks. Barrels filled with the crude oil were often tied to rafts and floated down Oil Creek in an effort to get them to market.

In 1861, the world's first petroleum refinery, near Oil Creek, went on line producing primarily illuminating kerosene that was virtually odorless and smokeless. Railroads using flatcars transported the petroleum to refineries, and as the market grew, so did spur lines into the oil producing region. In 1865, a railroad tank car was specifically designed for carrying crude oil.

That same year, the first oil pipeline was laid from Pithole City to the Oil Creek Railroad. It was two inches in diameter and 32,000 feet long. In 1879, the first major pipeline was completed, stretching 110 miles across the Allegheny Mountains to Williams-port, Pennsylvania. By 1900, drillers were eyeing the possibility that petroleum could be found in salt domes along the Gulf of Mexico's coastline. And on January 10, 1901, in Gladys City, Texas, along the Spindletop ridge near Beaumont, a well drilled by Anthony F. Lucas struck oil, producing 100,000 barrels a day.

A second oil boom was on, and scenes from the Pennsylvania oil rush nearly fifty years earlier were replayed in the hundreds of small towns along the Texas Gulf of Mexico.


By 1929, oil production in the United States had tripled from 1918 levels. It was during that year that American companies produced one billion barrels of oil for the first time in the short history of the petroleum industry.
By 1997, 6.38 million barrels per day production of crude oil was recorded.

Drake and Lucas had paved the way for the wholesale removal of petroleum from the ground. Now, inventors began to develop products that opened up a whole new market for crude oil and its products. One of the first uses was in the internal combustion engine built in 1885-86 by Karl Benz. The concept was improved on by Gottlieb Daimler, who developed an engine that used a lighter gasoline vapor. By 1894, Rudolf Diesel had designed the engine that bears his name today, an internal combustion engine ignited by the heat of compression rather than by a spark.

However, probably the most significant invention that changed the way Americans lived came in 1893 with the development of the first American car by Charles and Frank Duryea in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his Model T. He subsequently perfected the mass production of automobiles, and America's love affair with the car had begun. This meant a completely new avenue for crude oil.

Until the development and widespread use of the automobile, gasoline was considered a waste product. However, as the number of automobiles grew, so did the number of gasoline stations across the country.

Petroleum and its products, however, are used in many, many more ways. These include heating and cooling homes and factories, manufacturing goods, and fueling commercial and military aircraft, tractors, and railroads.
New refining processes have led to the creation of thousands of new products, including plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, paints, photographic film, detergents, synthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers. One can hardly imagine how different our lives would be today without these products.
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