An Ancient Resource
Oil is essential to the production and operation of numerous modern conveniences including plastic and automobiles, yet its origin dates back millions of years. It is considered a nonrenewable resource since it cannot be replenished within a human timeframe — which is why it is so essential to conserve its use and to find sustainable, renewable alternatives.
The Origin of Oil
Petroleum-based oil is formed from the remains of animals and plants that lived millions of years ago. Layers of sand and silt covered their bodies, accumulating over time and eventually solidifying into rock. After millions of years underneath the pressure and heat produced by these rock layers, the decayed organic matter turned into crude oil.
The History of Oil Procurement
While it seems like oil extraction and refining is a relatively recent aspect of modern living, oil has actually been sourced and used for over a thousand years. The modern oil industry traces its beginnings to the 19th century, when kerosene (which is distilled from oil) began replacing whale oil as the preferred fuel for lamps. The first modern oil well was drilled in Poland in 1850.
John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in 1870, setting off an oil boom in the western United States. The mass production of the automobile and other technological advances meant the rapid growth of demand for oil. And with Henry Ford’s Model T making the automobile accessible to many Americans, the demand for gasoline, a byproduct of petroleum refining, skyrocketed.
Oil excavation and distribution grew globally during the 20th century, and around the same time petroleum-based manufacturing of plastics and other synthetic materials developed by leaps and bounds, cementing the world’s dependence on this finite resource.
How Oil Is Sourced Today
Oil and natural gas wells are traditionally drilled vertically as deep as five miles. More oil reserves can be reached with horizontal drilling methods, with “legs” radiating from the vertical well through the reservoir. This method allows more oil to be obtained with fewer wellsOil and gas reservoirs and well types. Credit: Wyoming State Geological Survey.
When an oil reservoir is tapped, the underground pressure is initially enough to drive the oil to the surface. As the pressure lessens, technology (like pumps) can continue drawing oil up. Eventually other methods must be used to bring additional oil to the surface. These other methods could involve injecting water or steam into the reservoir, chemical flooding, and hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking.” Fracking entails injecting highly pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into wells that are drilled into bedrock. The process creates new fractures in the bedrock and helps to make existing fractures more accessible, allowing more oil to be extracted. The technique is typically used in rocks that are traditionally more difficult to get oil from, such as tightly packed sandstone, shale, and coal beds.
After the crude oil is drawn from the well, a refinery breaks it down into components to produce gasoline and other petroleum products. One barrel of oil yields about 19 gallons of motor gasoline and 10 gallons of diesel. The remaining components are turned into a variety of other consumer products, including propane, ink, tires, detergents, personal care products (such as some cosmetics), plastic goods, and more.
Oil’s Impact on the Environment
Oil significantly affects the environment through its extraction, production, transportation, and use. Fracking uses significant amounts of water (which can deplete freshwater supplies in dry areas such as western Texas), has been known to contaminate groundwater with potentially carcinogenic chemicals, and may cause small earth tremors. Petroleum refineries may pollute bodies of water with treated wastewater, and they produce solid waste that contains toxic materials requiring special handling and disposal.
Leaks occur at many stages of oil’s production and use, from the pipelines to storage tanks, down to drips of gasoline as somebody fills up their car’s tank. These leaks wash into the ground or water and damage plants and wildlife. When released into the environment in large amounts — a not insignificant risk with oil drilling — oil can poison or smother organisms and disrupt ecosystems. Major spills include the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker dumping 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound in southern Alaska (this is one of the world’s most significant ecological disasters) and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion, killing 11 people and leaking an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (becoming one of the largest spills in history).
When burned as fuel, as is the case with the gasoline that fuels any transportation, petroleum products release carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as other VOCs that contribute to greenhouse gases and ground-level ozone. Even transporting fuel burns fuel; imported oil in particular has to be transported many miles via tankers and trucks that consume fuel and emit pollution.
Relying on other nations to provide our oil has its own set of concerns ranging from the environmental to the economic and political. Crude oil procurement and production has been increasing in the U.S. since 2008, and in 2012, only about 40 percent of the petroleum used in the U.S. was from net imports — that is, oil imports minus that which was exported. Still, the U.S. is the largest consumer of oil in the world.
How You Can Reduce Reliance on Oil
While oil is necessary for modern society to function, we can still make small lifestyle changes that reduce our use and reliance on oil. Here’s how:
- Leave the car at home whenever possible, and instead walk, bike, or take public transportation.
- Carpool to work, school, and other destinations.
- Keep your car in good condition; it helps to improve gas mileage.
- Reduce your use of disposable plastics like plastic wrap, shopping bags, and beverage bottles, and instead use reusable versions.
- Avoid personal care products made from petroleum-derived ingredients.
- Adventures in Energy
- The Atlantic
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Geographic
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- U.S. Department of Energy