History and Origin of Petroleum

The first petroleum company was Seneca Oil founded in 1858 in Pennsylvania by George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth.  Originally it was called the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company with the objective of collecting oil from a  spring at Titusville, Pennsylvania.  They hired Edwin Drake to dig a well at  nearby Oil Creek.  He struck a flow of oil at 70 feet producing 25 barrels per day, which was pumped up and stored in a bath tub.

Drake pioneered the method of drilling within a cast iron pipe to prevent collapse of the hole due to water seepage, which in principle is the method used today.  The oil was refined to give kerosene which had a ready market as lamp oil, thus replacing whale oil.  Kerosene soon became a convenient domestic heating fuel,  and 100 years later a jet engine fuel.  This technological success set the scene for rapid development of the oil industry throughout the USA and world.  

During the 1870 – 90s oil exploration and production spread to Ohio and the Mid West and south to Oklahoma,  Texas and the Gulf states.  Deeper drilling sometimes produced gushers and fortunes were made.  Elsewhere in the world  oil companies became interested in the Middle East where oil seepages had been known since antiquity.  The first major strike was in Persia in 1905 by the Burmah Oil, a British company.   This was the start of Middle East oil exploration and development on the Arabian Peninsula and around the Caspian Sea.   At the start of the 1st World War the USA was a major exporter of  oil,  producing about 60% of the world’s supply, and the Middle East  only  about 5%.

Small companies merged to eventually become the giants of today, with Exxon, Mobil, Gulf Oil, Texaco, Shell and BP.    The  USA now ranks third in world oil production with 1190 million barrels per day,  after  Saudi Arabia (1620 mb/day) and Russia (1570 mb/day).   About 90% of petroleum is refined into fuels and 10%  used as feed stock for the petrochemical industry.  Today there are basically four important fuel  fractions of oil refining viz.,  gasoline, the middle distillates (kerosene and diesel fuel) and fuel oil, given in order of decreasing volatility.

The 18th century saw the invention of the steam engine and its later application to transport,  with expansion of the railways and steam powered ships.   The fuel used initially was coal which was cumbersome and dirty.    The increasing availability of fuel oil resulting in it replacing coal to power the steam engine.    Also,  by 1900,  we had the internal combustion engine to power the automobile, which required gasoline as fuel.   The diesel engine soon found its niche area  to power heavy machinery in industry and mining.  Domestic and industrial heating made increasing use of fuel oil replacing coal,  the later being favored  for large scale generation of electricity in coal-fired power stations,  and much used for steel-making.

Where did all this oil come from?    200 years ago there was none to be seen, whereas today it appears to be almost everywhere in abundance.  Oil is extracted from sedimentary rocks of marine origin by drilling holes to depths of  2000 meters on average.   The oil together with natural gas (methane) is localized in porous sandstone strata that is capped by an impermeable stratum such as a shale.   Oil can migrate  both horizontally and vertically until becoming trapped;   anticlines and faulted bedding form the  commonest  oil traps  which are found using geophysical prospecting methods.  The natural gas being lighter always accumulates above the oil in saturated sandstones.   

The origin of coal deposits is fairly obvious as it is found in sedimentary rocks of terrestrial,  lacustrine and deltaic origin,  and contains abundant plant and tree fossils.  This terrestrial vegetation  forms peat  which on deep burial,  the organic matter is converted into fossil fuels, the sequence being lignite, brown and black coals, with loss of contained water and increasing carbon content.  By analogy,  oil geologists surmised that organic matter of the oceans derived from plankton etc accumulates in the marine sediments which on deep burial would become converted into oil and gas.     This is the Western Biogenic (Biotic) theory of petroleum genesis.  It seems a  plausible proposition, but still remains puzzling.

Plankton is eaten by whales which become a rich source of oil, hence the rise of the early whaling industry.  Maybe whales have their special place to die,  which becomes covered over by sediments to form an oil deposit?  No, we don’t find fossil whale bones near oil deposits.  Let’s think again.  What clues do we have?

The Biotic Theory of oil genesis suggests that present day marine  sediments should contain appreciable organic matter.  Do they?   Yes, the average marine sediment contains 2.5% organic matter,   and  is much higher in stagnant troughs and basins,   such as  the mud of the present day Black Sea  having as much as 35% organic matter.  Under reducing conditions this organic matter (called sapropel) is slowly converted into hydrocarbons.  

So the science is settled.  Or is it?   Maybe not.  However,  there is another way possible it could form,  called Abiotic,  by non-biological means deep within the earth’s crust,   and then it migrates upward through fissures and fault zones to be trapped in overlying sediments?  The two theories are not mutually exclusive. The Russian oil geologists developed the Abiotic Theory of oil genesis and applied it to oil exploration from the 1950’s onwards, the result being that Russia is the second largest oil producer in the world.

Let’s expand the system under consideration to the crust of the earth and apply De Bono’s lateral thinking.  The Earth is a unique planet having an active plate system with some plates being subducted to great depths of  70 kms or more   and being melted  into magma, such as all along the Andean Cordillera and elsewhere.  Everything including the kitchen sink goes down, you name it,  vast amounts of  carbonate rocks such as limestone and dolomites and old coal deposits etc.,  which under reducing conditions are theorized to be  converted in hydrocarbons of various types, and then up it comes to the earth’s surface through fracture zones.

Pretty fanciful, you may think?    However,  the Theory of Plate Tectonics was proposed in the 1950’s and ridiculed initially, but  is  now fully accepted.   The idea of continents drifting, and Africa and South America once being joined up was first suggested  around 1800  by the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humbolt.  This provided something for geologists to ponder over,  and finally 150 years later to develop into a new theory, that of Plate Tectonics, which explained all.  Also,  Humbolt was the first to suggest a volcanic origin for petroleum.

In conclusion,  I think we need to keep an open mind on the theories of petroleum genesis, because it is so important for future exploration and production.  Our present standard of living is dependent on a ready supply of hydrocarbons for transport and heating purposes.  The history of the petroleum industry shows how we have got to our present prosperous state.  It is by application of new theories and new technologies to petroleum that will ensure us a  happy and  prosperous future.