Oil Creek

Given that I’m an ERE professor, you’d probably guess that one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit was the area around Oil Creek in western Pennsylvania, where the oil industry had its beginning…. & you’d be absolutely right! Colonel Edwin Drake drilled for oil there in 1859 at a site just south of Titusville, PA, and today there is a museum and a replica of his drilling rig on that exact location.

Replica of Drake’s drilling rig

The museum does a really nice job of showing just how important this industry is, and the many, many technical issues it faced: drilling technology (originally hammered spikes and steam engines, later rotary drill bits and diesel engines); storage (washtubs and wooden barrels at first, followed by wooden & then metal tanks); transport (barrels & wooden tanks on rail, followed by tank cars & then pipelines); refining (crude distillation tanks, ultimately evolving into modern refineries and petrochemical plants); and final product marketing (kerosene for lamps initially, with gasoline a waste product; all that changed with the internal combustion engine).

In addition to the museum, we wandered around nearby Oil City and Oil Creek State Park, checking out the abandoned boomtowns of Petroleum Center and Pithole. The former is located within Wildcat Hollow, a place that gave the term ‘wildcatters’ to those independent types who drilled in such risky, unproven areas.

Oil Creek in Oil City, PA

This area gave birth to an industry that had a radical impact upon the world…. & of course, I have to mention Daniel Yergin’s wonderful The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, 1992’s Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction, on that count. But given today’s ERE focus, it’s also appropriate to mention a more recent work by Dieter Helm at Oxford University that portends its demise. Burnout: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels suggests that there are three unstoppable forces at work in the world today: endless supplies of fossil fuels (i.e., no more ‘peak oil’!); de-carbonization for climate change; and new digital and information technologies. After discussing these three forces, he discusses both the geopolitical effects they will have (on the U.S., the Middle East, China, Russia, etc.) and on energy companies (oil companies, electric utilities, etc.).

Over the years, Helm has been quite harsh about emissions trading, the EU ETS and the Kyoto Protocol – unduly so, I believe — and (like many other readers) I think he doesn’t really pay sufficient attention to how we move from a technological ‘here’ to ‘there.’ But overall, I think he’s got the big picture right…. and it promises to be a rather disruptive energy transition over coming decades!

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