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  Petroleum - History and Development
Petroleum (from Latin petrus - rock and oleum - oil), mineral oil, or 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.

Petroleum has been known throughout historical time. 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.

It was used in mortar, for coating walls and boat hulls, and as a fire weapon in defensive warfare. Native Americans used it in magic and medicine and in making paints. Pioneers bought it from the Native Americans for medicinal use and called it Seneca oil and Genesee oil. In Europe it was scooped from streams or holes in the ground, and in the early 19th cent. small quantities were made from shale. In 1815 several streets in Prague were lighted with petroleum lamps.

The 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 we will eventually run out of, 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, oil shale, and methyl hydrate that will allow for petroleum use to continue for an extremely long period in the future.

Today about 90% of fuel needs are met by oil. 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 Gulf War. About 80% of the world's readily accessible reserves are located in the Middle East. The US has less than 3%.

The presence of the oil industry has significant social and environmental impacts, from accidents and from routine activities such as seismic exploration, drilling, and generation of polluting wastes. Oil extraction is costly and often environmentally damaging. 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.

Biogenic theory

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

Alternative theories

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 lighter than rocks so they seep upward. Deep microbial life convert them into the various hydrocarbon deposits.
There is also a new theory, presented in Scientific American in 2003, which proposes that hydrocarbons are generated by active nuclear activity in the Earth's core.
As of 2004, these theories are very much minority positions in the community of geologists.


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