Seisma Energy Research, AVV (formerly Seisma Oil Research, LLC) presents this article as part of a series of articles on understanding the energy business. We hope you enjoy this series.


The petroleum industry includes the global processes of exploration, extraction, refining, transporting (often by oil tankers and pipelines), and marketing petroleum products. The largest volume products of the industry are fuel oil and gasoline (petrol). Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. The industry is usually divided into three major components: upstream, midstream and downstream. Midstream operations are usually included in the downstream category.

Petroleum is vital to many industries, and is of importance to the maintenance of industrialized civilization itself, and thus is a critical concern for many nations. Oil accounts for a large percentage of the world’s energy consumption, ranging from a low of 32% for Europe and Asia, up to a high of 53% for the Middle East. Other geographic regions’ consumption patterns are as follows: South and Central America (44%), Africa (41%), and North America (40%). The world consumes 30 billion barrels (4.8 km³) of oil per year, with developed nations being the largest consumers. The United States consumed 25% of the oil produced in 2007. The production, distribution, refining, and retailing of petroleum taken as a whole represents the world’s largest industry in terms of dollar value.


Natural history

Petroleum is a naturally occurring liquid found in rock formations. It consists of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights, plus other organic compounds. It is generally accepted that oil, like other fossil fuels, formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years. Over time, the decayed residue was covered by layers of mud and silt, sinking further down into the Earth’s crust and preserved there between hot and pressured layers, gradually transforming into oil reservoirs.

Early history

Petroleum in an unrefined state has been utilized by humans for over 5000 years. Oil in general has been used since early human history to keep fires ablaze, and also for warfare. Ancient Persian language tablets indicate the medicinal and lighting uses of petroleum in the upper echelons of their society. Ancient China was also known to burn skimmed oil for light.

An early petroleum industry was established in the 8th century, when the streets of Baghdad were paved with tar, derived from petroleum through destructive distillation. In the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha. These fields were described by al-Masudi in the 10th century, and by Marco Polo in the 13th century, who described the output of those oil wells as hundreds of shiploads. Petroleum was distilled by al-Razi in the 9th century, producing chemicals such as kerosene in the alembic, which he used to invent kerosene lamps for use in the oil lamp industry.

Its importance in the world economy evolved slowly, with wood and coal used for heating and cooking, and whale oil used for lighting well into the 19th Century. A petroleum industry emerged in North America in Canada and the United States, fueling the industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution generated an increasing need for energy which was fuelled mainly by coal, with other sources including whale oil. However, it was discovered that kerosene could be extracted from crude oil and used as a light and heating fuel. Petroleum was in great demand, and by the twentieth century had become the most valuable commodity traded on the world market.

Modern History

Imperial Russia produced 3,500 tons of oil in 1825 and doubled its output by mid-century After oil drilling began in what is now Azerbaijan in 1848, two large pipelines were built in the Russian Empire: the 833 km long pipeline to transport oil from the Caspian to the Black Sea port of Batumi (Baku-Batumi pipeline), completed in 1906, and the 162 km long pipeline to carry oil from Chechnya to the Caspian.

At the turn of the 20th century, Imperial Russia’s output of oil, almost entirely from the Apsheron Peninsula, accounted for half of the world’s production and dominated international markets. Nearly 200 small refineries operated in the suburbs of Baku by 1884. As a side effect of these early developments, the Apsheron Peninsula emerged as the world’s “oldest legacy of oil pollution and environmental negligence.” In 1878, Ludvig Nobel and his Branobel company “revolutionized oil transport” by commissioning the first oil tanker and launching it on the Caspian Sea.

The first modern oil refineries were built by Ignacy Łukasiewicz near Jasło (then in the dependent Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria in Central European Galicia), Poland from 1854–56. These were initially small as demand for refined fuel was limited. The refined products were used in artificial asphalt, machine oil and lubricants, in addition to Łukasiewicz’s kerosene lamp. As kerosene lamps gained popularity, the refining industry grew in the area.

The first large oil refinery opened at Ploieşti, Romania in 1856.
The first oil drilling in the United States began in 1859, when oil was successfully drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the United States overtook Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.

By the 1920s, oil fields had been established in many countries including Canada, Poland, Sweden, the Ukraine, the United States, and Venezuela.

In 1947, the Superior Oil Company constructed the first offshore oil platform off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

Environmental impact and future shortages

Some petroleum industry operations have been responsible for water pollution, through by-products of refining, and oil spills.

The combustion of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases and other air pollutants as by-products. Pollutants include nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.

As petroleum is a non-renewable natural resource the industry is faced with an inevitable eventual depletion of the world’s oil supply. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2007 predicted the reserve/production ratio for proven resources worldwide. The study placed the prospective life span of reserves in the Middle East at 79.5 years, Latin America at 41.2 years and North America at only 12 years. The global reserve/production ratio estimates that at current production levels, the world’s oil reserves will be depleted in 40.5 years.

The Hubbert peak theory, which introduced the concept of peak oil, questions the sustainability of oil production. It suggests that after a peak in oil production rates, a period of oil depletion will ensue.

According to research by IBISWorld, biofuels (primarily ethanol, but also biodiesel) will continue to supplement petroleum. However output levels are low, and these fuels will not displace local oil production. Ethanol is viewed as offering a lower environmental impact, and will play a small role in reducing dependence on imported crude oil. More than 90% of the ethanol used in the US is blended with gasoline to produce a 10% ethanol mix, lifting the oxygen content of the fuel.


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