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Petroleum (from Latin petra – rock and oleum – oil), crude oil, sometimes colloquially called black gold, is a thick, dark brown or greenish flammable liquid, which exists in the upper strata of some areas of the Earth's crust. It consists of a complex mixture of various hydrocarbons, largely of the alkane series, but may vary much in appearance, composition, and purity. It is an important "primary energy" source. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics.
Biogenic theory

Most geologists view crude oil, like coal and natural gas, as the product of compression and heating of ancient vegetation over geological timescales. According to this theory, it is formed from the decayed remains of prehistoric marine animals and terrestrial plants. Over many centuries this organic matter, mixed with mud, is buried under thick sedimentary layers of material. The resulting high levels of heat and pressure cause the remains to metamorphose first into a waxy material known as kerogen, and then into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as Catagenesis. These then migrate through adjacent rock layers until they become trapped underground in porous rocks called reservoirs, forming an oil field, from which the liquid can be extracted by drilling and pumping.

Thomas Gold was the most widely known Western proponent of the Russian-Ukrainian theory of abiogenic petroleum origin. This theory suggests that large amounts of carbon exist naturally in the planet, some in the form of hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are less dense than aqueous pore fluids, and so migrate upward. Deep microbial lifeforms convert them into the various hydrocarbon deposits. Thermodynamic calculations and experimental studies confirm that n-alkanes (common petroleum components) do not spontaneously evolve from methane at pressures typically found in sedimentary basins, and so the theory of an abiotic origin of hydrocarbons suggests deep generation (below 200 km).

Generally the first stage in the extraction of crude oil is to drill a well into the underground reservoir. Historically, in the USA some oil fields existed where the oil rose naturally to the surface, but most of these fields have long since been depleted, except for certain remote locations in Alaska. Often many wells will be drilled into the same reservoir, to ensure that the extraction rate will be economically viable. Also some wells may be used to pump water, steam or various gas mixtures into the reservoir to raise or maintain the reservoir pressure, and so maintain an economic extraction rate.

If the underground pressure in the oil reservoir is sufficient, then the oil will be forced to the surface under this pressure. Gaseous fuels or natural gas are usually present, which also supplies needed underground pressure. In this situation it is sufficient to place a complex arrangement of valves on the well head to connect the well to a pipeline network for storage and processing. This is called primary oil recovery. Usually, only about 20% of the oil in a reservoir can be extracted this way.


Over the lifetime of the well the pressure will fall, and at some point there will be insufficient underground pressure to force the oil to the surface. If economical, and it often is, the remaining oil in the well is extracted using secondary oil recovery methods. see: Energy balance and Net energy gain. Secondary oil recovery uses various techniques to aid in recovering oil from depleted or low-pressure reservoirs. Sometimes pumps, such as Beam Pumps and Electrical Submersible Pumps (ESPs), are used to bring the oil to the surface. Other secondary recovery techniques increase the reservoir's pressure by Water Injection, natural Gas reinjection and Gas Lift, which injects air, carbon dioxide or some other gas into the reservoir. Together, primary and secondary recovery allow 25 to 35% of the reservoir's oil to be recovered.

Tertiary oil recovery reduces the oil's viscosity to increase oil production. Tertiary recovery is started when secondary oil recovery techniques are no longer enough to sustain production, but only when the oil can still be extracted profitably. This depends on the cost of the extraction method and the current price of crude oil. When prices are high, previously unprofitable wells are brought back into production and when they are low, production is curtailed. Thermally-enhanced oil recovery methods (TEOR) are tertiary recovery techniques that heat the oil and make it easier to extract. Steam injection is the most common form of TEOR, and is often done with a cogeneration plant. In this type of cogeneration plant, a gas turbine is used to generate electricity and the waste heat is used to produce steam, which is then injected into the reservoir. This form of recovery is used extensively to increase oil production in the San Joaquin Valley, which has very heavy oil, yet accounts for 10% of the United State's oil production. In-situ burning is another form of TEOR, but instead of steam, some of the oil is burned to heat the surrounding oil. Occasionally, detergents are also used to decrease oil viscosity. Tertiary recovery allows another 5 to 15% of the reservoir's oil to be recovered.

The first oil wells were drilled in China in the 4th century or earlier. The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs.The modern history of oil began in 1853, with the discovery of the process of oil distillation. Crude oil was distilled into kerosene by Ignacy Lukasiewicz, a Polish scientist. The first "rock oil" mine was created in Bobrka, near Krosno in southern Poland in the following year and the first refinery (actually a distillery) was built in Ulaszowice, also by Lukasiewicz.

The American petroleum industry began with Edwin Drake's discovery of oil in 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The industry grew slowly in the 1800s and did not become a real national concern until the early part of the 20th century; the introduction of the internal combustion engine provided a demand that has largely sustained the industry to this day. Early "local" finds like those in Pennsylvania and Ontario were quickly exhausted, leading to "oil booms" in Texas, Oklahoma, and California. Other countries had sizable oil reserves as a part of their colonial holdings, and started to develop them at an industrial level.


While even in 1955 coal was still the world's foremost fuel, oil began to take over. Following the 1973 energy crisis and the 1979 energy crisis there was significant media coverage of oil supply levels. This brought to light the concern that oil is a limited resource that will eventually run out, at least as an economically viable energy source. At the time, the most common and popular predictions were always quite dire, and when they did not come true, many dismissed all such discussion. The future of petroleum as a fuel remains somewhat controversial. USA Today news (2004) reports that there is 40 years of petroleum left in the ground. Some would argue that because the total amount of petroleum is finite, the dire predictions of the 1970s have merely been postponed. Others argue that technology will continue to allow for the production of cheap hydrocarbons and that the earth has vast sources of unconventional petroleum reserves in the form of tar sands, bitumen fields and oil shale that will allow for petroleum use to continue for an extremely long period in the future.

Today about 90% of vehicular fuel needs are met by oil. Petroleum also makes up 40% of total energy consumption in the United States, but is responsible for only 2% of electricity generation. Petroleum's worth as a portable, dense energy source powering the vast majority of vehicles and as the base of many industrial chemicals makes it one of the world's most important commodities. Access to it was a major factor in several military conflicts, including World War II and the Persian Gulf War. About 80% of the world's readily accessible reserves are located in the Middle East. USA territory has less than 3%.

The presence of oil has significant social and environmental impacts, from accidents and routine activities such as seismic exploration, drilling, and generation of polluting wastes. Oil extraction is costly and sometimes environmentally damaging, although Dr. John Hunt from Woods Hole pointed out in a 1981 paper that over 70% of the reserves in the world are associated with visible macroseepages, and many oil fields are found due to natural leaks. Offshore exploration and extraction of oil disturbs the surrounding marine environment. Extraction may involve dredging, which stirs up the sea bed, killing the sea plants that marine creatures need to survive. Crude oil and refined fuel spills from tanker ship accidents have damaged fragile ecosystems in Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Spain, and many other places. Renewable energy source alternatives do exist, although the degree to which they can replace petroleum and the possible environmental damage they may cause is controversial.

The Hubbert peak theory, also known as peak oil, is a controversial theory concerning the long-term rate of conventional oil and other fossil fuel production and depletion. It assumes that oil reserves are not replenished, and predicts that future world oil production must inevitably reach a peak and then decline as these reserves are exhausted. Much of the controversy is over whether past production or discovery data can be used to predict a future peak. Based on available production data, proponents have previously (and incorrectly) predicted the peak years to be 1989, 1995, or 1995-2000, however these predictions date from before the recession of the early 1980's, and the consequent reduction in global consumption, the effect of which was to delay the date of any peak by several years. A new prediction by Goldman Sachs picks 2007 for oil and some time later for natural gas.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Petroleum".