(a juxtagraph is a prose poetry form, best described as “a collage of facts.”)
OIL: A JUXTAGRAPH
In 2018, the world produced thirty-six billion, seven hundred and eighty-eight million, three hundred and fifty thousand barrels of oil, or about one thousand, one hundred, and sixty-six barrels per second.
In 1975, Gulf Oil held a series of seminars to educate the Nigerian public on the benefits of the crude Gulf was lifting from that nation’s Delta Region. For comic relief, out came Mr. Emmanuel Omatshola’s Magic Barrel, a magician who produced an endless bounty from a steel drum: gasoline, kerosene, insecticides, nylon socks, rubber shoes, lipstick & rouge, paint for houses, cellophane to wrap fish and meat.
All humanity clusters around Mr. Omatshola’s barrel. We depend on its generous depths. No one knows where lies the barrel’s bottom.
Warm, shallow seas, fed by nutrient-rich rivers, supported great shoals of plankton. The tiny creatures lived, reproduced, and died, their corpses snowing down to the ocean bed. Sediment covered the deceased. Each year, heat and pressure changed those layers of dead, squeezing them into liquid trapped in interstices of rock. This process repeated for a million years, ten million years, a hundred million years, until the resulting oil lay far within the earth. There it remained, untouched and unseen, until we came.
Every gallon of gasoline consumed produces nineteen pounds of carbon dioxide.
An oil refinery is an alchemist’s tower. Rising off fire, the hydrocarbons fly upwards. At each level, a different weight class of carbon atoms exits, like a business executive getting off the elevator at their office floor. At the top of the stack, propane lofts away; at the bottom, tar sinks to Stygian depths.
The stages of this magnum opus:
-Naphtha: Feedstock for medicines and plastics.
-Gasoline: Our source of motion.
-Kerosene: Incandescence in liquid form
-Diesel: Energy to propel ninety-ton locomotives
-Fuel oil: Guardian against the cold
We say hunter/gatherer peoples find a use for every part of their quarry, but modern society goes further. We have found a purpose for every molecule of oil.
Norway. Brunei. Kuwait. Gabon. Trinidad and Tobago. Kazakhstan. The Mexican state of Veracruz. The Angolan exclave of Cabinda. The Canadian province of Alberta. The American states of Texas, North Dakota and Alaska. In a myriad of places, each with its own permutations, oil intersects with the human experience. In the past one hundred and sixty years, oil has become a pan-human phenomenon, bringing us together in ways no other substance ever has.
A post-divorce cross-country move. A journey to college three states away. A treasured childhood vacation road trip. A dune buggy adventure in the desert. In enabling movement, oil has led to one of the greatest increases in human freedom in history. A driver may get behind the wheel of a car and be hundreds of miles away, untracked, within a day. Mobility eats away the restraints of family, society, religion. Oil carries us to who we want to be.
The strategies of the Second World War pivoted on the oil provinces of Romania, the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia. Lack of oil ground the German air fleets and armies to a halt. Fear of being cut off from oil motivated the Japanese decision to attack the United States. Freeflowing supplies of oil enabled the Allies to gain and hold the initiative. World War II, the single worst event in history, the death of more than seventy million human beings, was fueled by oil.
Every year humanity uses about nine gigatons of concentrated carbon. Every year the world forms about 0.0002 gigatons of concentrated carbon.
We hide our fuel. It slips unseen from pump to tank. Yet if you stand on any American street, you are surrounded by gasoline, hundreds of gallons of gasoline within a stone’s throw. If the cars were transparent you could see it, rows of blobs of gasoline a few feet off the ground, a parade of gasoline moving past the stoplights.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the “Seven Sisters”–the major U.S. oil companies plus Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum–controlled global oil production and global oil prices. In the 1970s, the oil producing nations, convened as OPEC, wrested control from them. In the 1980s, OPEC in turn lost control, supplanted by spot markets that diffuse pricing power in ways John D. Rockefeller never imagined and would have hated if he had. Oil prices are now a delicate dialectic, set not by any handful of entities, but by perpetual argument among wellheads, tankers, catalytic crackers, and gasoline pumps worldwide.
In 1922, on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, prospectors found the oil they sought. A gusher spat up more than one hundred and thirty feet, a column of crude visible for miles. Tens of thousands of barrels every day rained down on the shoreline villages. After a party of local devotees prayed to San Benito, bathing his statue in the falling oil, the well collapsed in on itself and the gusher stopped.
Cyanobacteria appeared during the Archean Eon. The tiny creatures reproduced and metabolized, until, after a billion years, the Earth was wrapped in a mantle of oxygen. Their work complete, they died and settled as part of the layers of plankton that would change into the petroleum we pump and burn.
Alive, they transformed the planet’s atmosphere. Dead, they are doing so again.
A wellhead flow-control device is known as a “Christmas tree.”
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
The Clash: London Calling
Carole King: Tapestry
Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now
Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
Prince: Purple Rain
The middle decades of the 20th century saw an explosion of music. Rock, soul, punk, disco, and a thousand other forms bloomed worldwide, freeing the minds and asses of billions. This music flowed on discs of polyvinyl chloride. LP records sent the sound around the globe, smooth grooves pressed into durable plastic. Oil sings.
After 1970, American oil production peaked and went into decline. In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, Saudi Arabia placed an oil embargo on the Western nations that had supported Israel. Energy, the most basic cost in an economy, surged in price, sending inflation rippling across the globe. Thirty years of mutually enhancing oil growth and economic growth ended. The Seventies lived with a sense of unease, of restriction, of imminent loss, the very opposite of the preceding decade.
If you place gasoline in a disposable plastic cup, it is oil both ways. Oil to make the plastic; oil to make the gasoline. Oil wrapped in oil. If you leave it too long, the gasoline will eat through the cup.
A theory holds that everything we know about oil is wrong. Oil is not time-treated remains of plankton, but an abiotic substance, reservoirs of which are constantly refreshed from deep within the earth’s core. No empirical evidence supports this theory, but it reminds us from what a distance we observe oil, and how difficult it can be to understand.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq, annexed the emirate of Kuwait, giving him control of more than twenty percent of world oil reserves, and pointed his armies towards the giant fields of eastern Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which would allow him control of over fifty percent. Hussein stood to dominate global oil supplies. The United States, leading a coalition of troops from thirty-five nations, drove him from his conquests. The other great powers looked away. Hussein did not realize that in threatening the free flow of oil, he threatened the world, and the world would act to remove that threat. In the process, over fifty thousand human beings were killed, and an ecological catastrophe took place as masses of “Christmas trees” burned out of control.
Sometimes it is said modern humanity is “addicted” to oil. But modern civilization is no more addicted to oil than the human body is to blood. In both cases, we have formed around it, developed with it. Oil, like blood, carries energy, each barrel a red blood corpuscle, allowing society to move.
A favorite band’s T-shirt. Plastic sunglasses to show off a smile. A cozy parka with fake-fur trim. Brightly patterned stockings. To think that petroleum should be so soft and warm seems strange, but nylon and acrylic are as sure as wool and cotton. We wear oil.
Crude oil moves through a pipeline at the speed of a person walking, between three to six miles an hour.
Tetraethyl lead began to be added to gasoline in the 1920s. The substance reduced “knock,” tiny explosions within automobile engines that slowed and balked the vehicle. The introduction and discontinuance of leaded gasoline neatly tracked demographic waves of violence and crime in nations around the world. For 22 years after, the children born during the substance’s period of use were predisposed towards chaos, a generation of lead.
Seventy percent of the oil we pump was formed during the Mesozoic era, sixty-five to one hundred and fifty million years ago, a span representing three percent of Earth’s existence.
“New car smell” comes from Volatile Organic Compounds leaching out from oil-based solvents in the plastic of the dashboard, the foam of the seat, and anything else sourced from petrochemicals in the interior of the car—which is practically all the interior of the car. An automobile does not just run on oil. It is, to a great extent, made of oil.
In the one hundred and sixty years of the Oil Age, the number of human beings on Earth increased from 1.2 billion to 7.7 billion. Oil grants us fecundity.
Gasoline, as it is commonly formulated, looks like white wine. Be grateful for the odor—otherwise you might be tempted to pick it up and sip it, expecting a pleasantly cool drink.
The first oil well came about in Cherrytree Township, Pennsylvania, a hamlet on the edge of Venango County in the western part of the state. Oil seeps were common in the area. The quest for new illuminants inspired Edwin Drake to attempt drilling as for water. At sixty-nine and one-half feet, a steady flow of petroleum began. This was the future. The future of humanity began in Venango County.
A theory holds that oil production, both in individual nations and in the world as a whole, will hit a peak and then rapidly decline. A competing theory holds that as oil prices rise, new technologies become economical enough to increase production, thus ensuring a steady supply. The empirical evidence tilts toward the latter theory–to date.
In our day, most children’s rooms contain bins full of small plastic objects, separated from their components in waves of increasing entropy. Toys are plastic: diisononyl cyclohexanedicarboxylate, i-2-ethylhexyl terephthalate, acetyl tributyl citrate. Oil fuels the dreams of modern childhood.
Iran is an ancient land. Magi worshiped oil seeps aflame in the deserts. In our modern age, those seeps became one of the world’s primary sources of petroleum. Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh wanted to nationalize the industry. American and British oil companies joined with the Shah to overthrow him. The Shah sought to use the nation’s oil wealth to transform society in his White Revolution. The Islamic Republic overthrew him. Saddam Hussein invaded to seize the nation’s oil fields. He failed, but only after Iran lost hundreds of thousands dead. The theocracy still clings to power, begging to sell the nation’s oil to whomever is willing to buy.
Iran. Chad. Venezuela. Nigeria. Oil burns like a fever in the body politic.
A standard barrel is forty-two gallons of oil. This should not be confused with an actual steel drum, which holds fifty-five gallons of oil.
Polyethylene joint replacements. Polyurethane catheter tubing. Hearing aids. IV bags. Pacemakers. Plastics allow modern medicine. Plastics are strong enough, light enough, malleable enough, to use in situations where no other material would do. Countless human lives have been saved and made livable by plastics. Oil heals.
“Oil shale” is not oil. It is kerogen, which is the substance oil is before it’s oil. In order to make kerogen into usable crude, human beings must apply the heat that would, in nature, require hundreds of millions of years.
The United Kingdom joined the list of the top fifteen oil-producing nations in May of 1979. It dropped off the list in April of 2006. British production began at twenty-three thousand, eight hundred and thirty-two barrels per day in 1975, reached two million six hundred thousand barrels per day in 1999, declined to nine hundred and eighty-four thousand barrels per day in 2018. No revival is expected.
To access Brazil’s Lula offshore oil field, it was first necessary to drop a pipe through a mile and a quarter of ocean, then drill through a three-mile-deep layer of molten salt.
Oil production in the U.S.S.R. dropped from twelve million barrels a day in 1988 to seven million barrels a day in 1995. This decline helped end the Soviet Union. In consequence, oil exports to North Korea and Cuba were halted, destroying both economies and leading to a famine killing more than a million people in North Korea.
A flight reuniting lovers. An air journey quick enough to allow attending an old friend’s funeral. A nervous exchange student traversing continents in a single exhilarating day. Only aviation fuel provides us with energy compact and rich enough to let us climb into the skies. Oil flies.
Dental floss is nylon and Teflon. Toothbrushes are polyethylene handles with nylon bristles. Our oral hygiene relies on oil.
Hundreds of millions of years of oil. As if Earth were storing it for us, a trust fund to be handed over when we came of age. In one hundred and sixty years, we have spent about one and one-third trillion barrels of that gift. We do not know what balance remains.
In the hour you read this, given 2018 rates, humanity will lift out of the vaults of the earth, out of the depths of time, four million, one hundred and ninety-nine thousand, five hundred and eighty-three barrels of oil.