On April 20, 2010, an explosion on a BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in loss of human life and what we now know to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The incident has demeaned the oil industry, those who oversee it and, yes, those of us who consume its products.
BP’s apparent underestimation of the risks of offshore oil production and their overestimation of their ability to cope with disaster strain our already-battered sense of corporate credibility. The feeling of incapacity to fix the problem we observe from all involved sectors has made us uncertain about our energy future. All-too-common images of birds fouled with black tar on their plumage strain our sensitivities as we helplessly watch the destruction of an entire ecosystem.
There are more questions than answers about how we have come to find ourselves in such a precarious energy predicament; about how we have become so dependent on big oil; and about how we have enthralled ourselves under the yoke of those who possess its reserves. Maybe a bit of history will shed light on the present calamity.
Crude oil was known to the ancients. Early civilizations found the black substance oozing from the ground and found it useful as a medical liniment and as a building material for sealing joints. The first crude was not extracted – it seeped its way to the surface. Eventually, it was found that petroleum could be refined into products that could fuel lamps or lubricate machinery. Demand for petroleum and its derivatives began to grow.
It wasn’t until 1859 that Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well at the site of a suspected oil deposit in Titusville, Pa. This first well was 70 feet deep and reportedly produced 15 barrels a day – enough to illuminate many lamps or lubricate many machines. As time passed, petroleum products became more plentiful. So, too, did the drilling rigs and wells used to tap underground petroleum reserves. In 1887, H.L. Williams of California thought to build a pier out into the Pacific, upon which he built a drilling rig and started producing oil from under water in what became the first offshore rig.
On the heels of these early successes came the emergence of the internal-combustion engine, which became the main driver of petroleum demand and its evolution into currency-like status in modern economics. The idea that petroleum could become a major driver of global economics and politics in the 20th century would have been laughable to anyone only four or five generations ago.
The oil and gas industry has been a major customer of every metalworking industry I have covered journalistically during my decades-long career. Although I believe the world has been foolish in letting ourselves become so reliant on its finite petroleum reserves, I have still marveled at the advances in materials and other technologies that have helped us find and extract it.
These are advances in which the metalworking has had a significant part. Once the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico is eased, attention will likely turn again toward alternative energy sources. These, too, will require advances in metalworking and will result in opportunities for the forging industry.