This Week in Petroleum History – January 28 to February 3
January 28, 1969 – Santa Barbara Spill brings Environmental Movement
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 and reaches 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.”
It will take oil field 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.”
Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established the following year – joining several other federal agencies regulating the industry – public opinion turns against offshore exploration.
“Images of spilled oil bubbling to the ocean’s surface and covering birds and other wildlife have firmly cemented in much of the public mind that offshore drilling is dangerous,” notes Drew Thornley in Energy & the Environment: Myths & Facts.
“Thus the means by which the U.S. obtains about 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas production and about 24 percent of its oil production have become, understandably, linked to environmental degradation,” he adds.
Researchers have found that natural offshore seeps not far from the 1969 spill site have leaked up to 25 tons of oil each day – for the last several hundred thousand years.
“Ironically, research shows that drilling can actually reduce natural seepage, as it relieves the pressure that drives oil and gas up from ocean floors and into ocean waters,” says Thornley.
Researchers today have found that natural seepage in the northern Santa Barbara Channel “was significantly reduced by oil production.”
Read more in “Santa Barbara and Oil Seeps.”
January 29, 1850 – Canadian patents Gas Burner
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
German mechanical engineer Karl Benz applies for a patent for his Benz Patent Motorwagen – a three-wheeler with a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine. His “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine) patent is recognized as the world’s first patent for a practical internal combustion engine powered automobile. Also see “Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.”
January 30, 1916 – Standard Oil promotes Petroleum Product “Nujol”
Standard Oil Company of New Jersey takes out a full-page advertisement in the New York Sun extolling the virtues of “Nujol,” one of the company’s many petroleum-based products.
Nujol offers “Internal Lubrication as a Means to Health,” the ad proclaims. One historian will later note that “physicians disagree with the sales department of Standard Oil on this point.”
Standard promises to send a pint of Nujol anywhere in the United States for 75 cents in stamps or coin.
Standard joins an ancient line of those finding medicinal qualities in petroleum. Since primitive people found medicinal solutions in natural oil seeps, petroleum has been used with greater or lesser success to heal a variety of ailments.
By the 19th century, patent medicines and their “miraculous” curative claims have become part of American culture. In the 1840s, a popular “American Medicinal Oil” comes from naturally occurring petroleum seeps in Kentucky.
In 1872, a young New York chemist patents his method for turning “petroleum jelly” into a balm. He calls it “Vaseline.” Read “The Crude Oil History of Maybelline.“
February 1, 1868 – Oil Prices Weighed for First Time
In a practice that continues to this day, oil price quotations are based on specific gravity – the heaviness of a substance compared to that of water – in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
In the new oil regions, independent producers frequently meet to discuss business, sell shares of stock, argue prices, and enter into refining contracts.
Before the Titusville Oil Exchange is established in 1871, producers would gather in convenient establishments, such as Titusville’s American Hotel or along Centre Street in Oil City – known as the “Curbside Exchange.”
A permanent three-story brick building is built in Titusville in 1881.
February 2, 1923 – First Anti-Knock Gas goes on Sale
“Ethyl,” the world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetra-ethyl lead compound, goes on sale.
Discovered just two years earlier by General Motors scientists, the improved gasoline is sold at the Refiners Oil Company service station on South Main Street in Dayton, Ohio.
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” was the name applied to the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. This shock was called a ping or a knock and caused damage to the engine.
In the 1950s, geochemist Clair Patterson will discover the toxicity of tetra-ethyl lead. Phase out of its use in gasoline begins in 1976. EPA Administrator Carol Browner in 1996 declares, “The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”
February 3, 1868 – Oil Producers seek End of Civil War Tax
Oil Creek refiners meet in Petroleum Center, Pennsylvania, where they pass a resolution demanding that the Civil War’s one dollar a barrel “war tax” on refined petroleum products be repealed.
As early as 1862, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase advocated a $10.50 per barrel tax on refined petroleum products, the equivalent in 2010 dollars of $145.
Chase, responsible for the introduction of federal paper money – printed on green paper - during the Civil War, will not succeed with his petroleum tax, despite the Union’s need for revenue.
Instead, a one-dollar excise tax is imposed in 1864.
In 1868, with the war over and Pennsylvania’s oil region production greatly in excess of demand, the price refiners get for kerosene falls to new lows. The continued Civil War tax further reduces profits.
Oil Creek refiners achieve their goal within six months after the Petroleum Center meeting when Congress passes a bill exempting petroleum and its products from taxation.
Salmon P. Chase is pictured on the $10,000 bill.
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