Oil​—How Do We Get It?

“LET there be light.” In the United States in the 19th century, a new source of artificial light was needed to replace the inconveniences of flickering light produced by fats, whale oil, and other substances. What was the solution? Oil! Where could it be found?

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.​—See the box on page 7.

How Much Oil, and Where Is It?

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. (See the box on page 7.) 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 discovered hydrocarbons 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. (See pages 8-9.) But this still leaves the question, Is oil a mixed blessing?


^ par. 6 One of them, Alfred Bernhard Nobel, would later become the founder of the Nobel Prizes.

^ par. 16 “A guyed tower constructed in more than 300 metres [1,000 feet] of water in the Gulf of Mexico has been estimated to produce oil at about 65 times the production cost in the Middle East.”​—The Encyclopædia Britannica.

^ par. 18 In the early days, oil was stored and transported in wooden barrels, the same as those used for wine.​—See the box on page 5.

[Box/Picture on page 5]


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.

[Credit Line]

Source: American Petroleum Institute

[Box on page 6]


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. *


^ par. 37 Awake! does not take a position on differing theories. It merely reports them.

 [Box/Picture on page 10, 11]


▪ The total quantity of oil spilled by tankers between 1970 and 2000 is 5,322,000 tons

▪ The largest oil spill occurred in 1979 when the Atlantic Empress collided with the Aegean Captain in the Caribbean, resulting in a spill of 287,000 tons of oil

▪ The Exxon Valdez was only about the 34th-largest oil tanker spill

▪ Although most tanker spills result from operations such as loading, discharging, and bunkering, the largest spills are related to collisions and groundings

▪ Some major oil spills from causes other than tankers:

● Blowout of the exploratory well Ixtoc I in 1979, in the Gulf of Mexico. Total spilled: 140,000,000 gallons [500,000,000 L]

● Blowout of a platform in a well in the Persian Gulf in 1983. Total spilled: 80,000,000 gallons [300,000,000 L]

● Deliberate release in 1991, in the Persian Gulf. Total spilled: 240,000,000 gallons [900,000,000 L]


Oil tanker “Erika” sinks near Penmarch Point, France, December 13, 1999

[Credit Lines]

Sources: International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, “Oil Spill Intelligence Report,” “The Encarta Encyclopedia”

© La Marine Nationale, France

 [Diagram/Pictures on page 8, 9]

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The Global Positioning System provides accurate signals used for surveying





Seismic surveying, one method used, records the below-ground reflections of artificially generated sound waves





Extraction methods include the use of inland, offshore, and underwater oil wells. To maintain the pressure, gases or water may be injected



Remotely operated submarines are used to construct production facilities on the sea bottom



Motors controlled remotely by an engineer turn the drill bit, and sensors detect the rock properties




Pipelines above the ground, below the ground, and under the sea transport the oil. Other methods of transport include tankers, barges, and railcars



Crude oil is heated, distilled, and broken up into fractions that can be used to make everyday products


When sticky, dark crude oil is heated in the furnace, the hydrocarbons turn into gases. The gases condense back into liquids at different temperatures. Oil is thus separated into its parts, or fractions

68°F. [20°C]


These include methane, ethane, propane, and butane

70°-160°F. [20°-70°C]


Used as automobile fuel and as a raw material for plastics

160°-320°F. [70°-160°C]


Can be made into plastics, automobile fuel, and other chemicals

320°-480°F. [160°-250°C]


Made into jet fuel and stove oil

480°-660°F. [250°-350°C]


Made into diesel and furnace fuels




Further processed into refinery fuels, heavy fuel oil, candle wax, greases, and asphalt


The hydrocarbons are heated by steam and mixed with the hot catalyst of powdered alumina-silica gel. This process cracks, or breaks up, the hydrocarbons into smaller and more useful molecules

Powdered catalyst mixes with the hydrocarbon in steam


This solvent is used in the manufacturing of, paints, cosemetic, perfumes, soap, and dyes


Polystyrene, for example is made by polymerizing styrene


Octane booster prevents gas from igniting too quickly in the engine, thus improving its performance

[Credit Line]

Photo Courtesy of Phillips Petroleum Company

[Graph on page 7]

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Total amounts are in billions of barrels. This does not include undiscovered resources

▪ OPEC member

• Country that has one or more supergiant fields

Cumulative production

◆ Reserves

▪ • ◆ 332.7 SAUDI ARABIA


• ◆ 192.6 RUSSIA

▪ • ◆ 135.9 IRAN

▪ • ◆ 130.6 VENEZUELA

▪ • ◆ 125.1 KUWAIT

▪ • ◆ 122.8 IRAQ


• ◆ 70.9 MEXICO

• ◆ 42.9 CHINA

▪ • ◆ 41.9 LIBYA

▪ ◆ 33.4 NIGERIA

◆ 21.2 CANADA

▪ ◆ 21.0 INDONESIA


▪ • ◆ 18.3 ALGERIA

◆ 17.6 NORWAY


[Pictures on page 4]

First crude-oil well, Titusville, Pennsylvania, 1859

Oil gushing out of a well in Texas

[Credit Line]

Brown Brothers

[Picture on page 5]

Early oil field, Beaumont, Texas

[Picture on page 5]

Horse cart transporting barrels of oil

[Picture on page 10]

Oil well ablaze in Kuwait

[Picture Credit Line on page 5]

All photos: Brown Brothers