Your source for energy education. Petroleum history offers a context

for teaching the modern business of meeting America's energy needs.

Oil and Natural Gas History, Education Resources, Museum News, Exhibits and Events


American oil history begins in a woodland valley along a creek in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. Today’s U.S. petroleum exploration and production industry is born on August 27, 1859, near Titusville when a well specifically drilled for oil finds it.

American oil history

Considered America’s first petroleum exploration company – the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York – incorporated in 1854. It reorganized as Seneca Oil Company in 1855.

A scientist hired by a group of investors four years earlier, reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than the refined coal then in use. As America expanded westward, public demand for “rock oil” or “coal oil” skyrocketed.

Organized in September 1855, the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut invested in this highly speculative pursuit of oil. The New Haven company replaced one they had organized in New York in 1854, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, today considered America’s first oil company.

Although small amounts of oil had been found (and bottled for medicine) as early as 1814 in Ohio and in Kentucky in 1818, these had been drilled seeking brine water. Pioneers relied on salt to preserve meat. They often drilled using a “spring pole.” Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Seneca Oil’s investors were rewarded when former railroad man Edwin L. Drake brought in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County.

Read the rest of this entry »


January 28, 1969 – Santa Barbara Spill brings Environmental Movement

Earth Day is born in the spring following the January 1969 offshore spill at Santa Barbara, California, according to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

After drilling 3,500 below the Pacific Ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara suffers a blowout.

The accident spills up to 100,000 barrels of oil into the ocean with some reaching southern California’s beaches, including Summerland – where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with wells drilled from piers.

At the Union Oil platform, “riggers began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit when the ‘mud’ used to maintain pressure became dangerously low,” explains a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“A natural gas blowout occurred. An initial attempt to cap the hole was successful but led to a tremendous buildup of pressure. The expanding mass created five breaks in an east-west fault on the ocean floor, releasing oil and gas from deep beneath the earth.”

Most of California's major oil and gas fields are in the three areas outlined on this 2010 U.S. Geological Survey map. Natural seeps - producing tarballs - dominate the coastline.

Most of California’s major fields are in areas outlined on this 2010 U.S. Geological Survey map. Natural seeps – producing tarballs – dominate the coastline.

It will take oilfield workers 12 days to control the well by pumping chemical mud down the bore hole at a rate of 1,500 barrels an hour.

“In the spring following the oil spill, Earth Day was born nationwide,” the report concludes. “Many consider the publicity surrounding the oil spill a major impetus to the environmental movement.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established on December 2, 1970. It joins other federal agencies regulating the industry as public opinion turns against offshore exploration.

Researchers have since found that natural offshore seeps near the 1969 spill site have leaked up to 25 tons of oil every day for the last several hundred thousand years. Offshore drilling can actually reduce natural seepage, because it relieves the pressure that drives oil and natural gas up from ocean floors.

Scientists now report that daily seepage in the northern Santa Barbara Channel has been “significantly reduced by oil production.” Read more in “Santa Barbara and Oil Seeps.”

January 29, 1850 – Canadian patents Illuminating Gas Burner

Abraham Gessner

Canadian Abraham Gessner is issued a patent for “obtaining of illuminating gas from compact and fluid bitumen (crude oil), asphaltum, chapapote, or mineral pitch as found in mines, quarries and springs in the earth.”

Gessner licenses his “coal gas” distillation apparatus to manufacturers for about $1 per burner, declaring his gas “affords the cleanest, safest, and most agreeable light ever used.”

The manufactured gas industry will survive into the mid-20th century. Gessner’s research will lead him four years later to “a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene.”

January 29,  1886 – Birth of Internal Combustion Automobile Read the rest of this entry »