What is oil, and what are its uses?

Ashley Bu, Reporter

A pump jack extracts oil from an oil field in Canada. In Canada, roughly 4.7 million barrels of oil were produced per day in 2019, according to the Canada Energy Regulator. (David Thielen/Unsplash)

In the past few months, oil prices have increased dramatically. Countries seek out the complex substance for its wide variety of uses.

Fossil fuels are found all over the world. However, the countries where oil is mostly found are: Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, and Iran. Within the United States, California, Texas, and Louisiana are the states most rich in oil. Generally, areas that have the most microorganisms have the largest amount of oil.

Oil deposits do not come in the form of lakes. Instead, they are found within tiny cracks of rocks. The pores of oil are so small that they can only be seen through a microscope.

A main way to obtain oil underneath the ocean floor is through offshore drilling. Offshore drilling mainly occurs off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and in the Chesapeake Bay. Rigs operate in areas as deep as two miles below the earth’s surface. On land, pump jacks and derricks are used to extract oil deep underground. Pump jacks use artificial lift to increase pressure to take oil from a reservoir. On average, they pump twenty times a minute.

After oil is extracted, they are refined in an oil refinery to be prepared for usage. According to API, about 17 million barrels of oil are refined per day because in its natural state, it cannot be used.

If the drilling or the transportation of oil is not done properly, it may result in spills. Spills can occur on a small or large scale. Smaller scale spills can affect the local ecosystem negatively, and it can physically impair or poison organisms. Ecosystems and species affected by large oil spills can take over decades to recover. 

To combat this, governments form oil cleanup programs to quicken the process of recovery. The United States Coast Guard and organizations such as NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency help clean up spills through certain methods. One such method is through using booms, plastic or metal barriers that float on water, to keep oil from spreading on the surface of a water body.

Petroleum is mainly used to give energy to cars, jets, and other vehicles, encompassing 90% of transportation fuel in 2020 as found by the US Energy Information Administration. The fuel to power vehicles comes from the sun’s energy in the dead organisms that make up the oil. Other than its use as fuel or energy, oil can be turned into synthetic materials. It is often used in rubber and personal hygiene products.

The formation of oil begins millions of years before it is extracted. About 70% of current oil deposits formed from 252 to 66 million years ago. In this time period, plankton, or small organic matter, were very abundant. When they die, they fall to the floor of warm oceans.

Once the matter completely falls to the floor, it goes through three phases to become a fossil fuel product. The first process is called diagenesis in which it becomes compacted under the extreme pressure and heat. While in this process, the dead plankton cannot be exposed to oxygen as it will be decomposed by bacteria. Catagenesis occurs after diagenesis. In this phase, the kerogen mud turns into simple hydrocarbon chains through thermal cracking. The immense heat breaks the long bonds into shorter chains.

The third and final phase in petroleum formation is called metagenesis. After being compressed underground with heat, the mud is almost completely converted into hydrocarbons. Afterward, it becomes a fossil fuel which may include coal, natural gas, and oil.