So, what is petroleum? Like other fossil fuels, petroleum starts with organic materials and takes millions of years to form. A large amount of petroleum is found beneath our oceans. Dead plants and animals (including algae) sank to the ocean floor and were buried by sand and dirt. This prevented the material from decaying normally. Over millions of years, the organic materials were exposed to tremendous compression and heating, resulting in petroleum-rich sedimentary rocks. Over time, oil accumulated between the layers of impermeable rock, forming reservoirs of liquid petroleum. (When these oil stores are under particularly high pressures, tapping them causes the kind of gusher you’ve seen in the movies.) Oil companies pump this oil from the reservoirs and transport it to refineries via tanker or pipeline. Once refined, petroleum becomes a lot of things, from gasoline to fertilizer to plastics.

While you may think that petroleum use started with the Industrial Revolution, it’s been around for much longer than that. In fact, we get the word “petroleum” from the Greek and Latin languages. (“Petros” means rock, and “oleum” means oil…rock oil!) The Chinese even drilled oil wells using bits they attached to long bamboo poles. Oil is such a useful resource because so much energy is locked into the molecules. Burning petroleum also creates other kinds of energy, including the electricity that powers our appliances.

Petroleum is responsible for generating 2% of America’s electricity supply. Power plants burn oil to produce the energy necessary to spin turbines, resulting in the generation of electricity. Additionally, 8.1 million American households use heating oil to stay warm during cold months. Most of the petroleum Americans use is dedicated to transportation: providing gasoline and diesel fuel to keep cars and trucks on the road.

You’ve probably heard about “energy independence.” In decades past, the United States was able to produce all of the oil it needed. Unfortunately, our demand grew and our supply was unable to meet the new levels. A great deal of the world’s proven petroleum reserves are spread across the world. In addition to American supplies, oil can be found in South America (Venezuela), the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iraq), Africa (Nigeria, Angola), Asia (Russia) and, of course, North America (Canada, Mexico). In 2007, the United States produced 1.8 billion barrels of oil. In that same year, the United States imported 4.9 billion barrels of oil from other countries. Fortunately, not all of that oil came from countries with somewhat complicated U.S. relations. In 2007, we imported 559 million barrels of oil from Mexico and 896 million barrels from Canada.

Yes, a petroleum-free future is somewhere on the horizon. (It has to be, as the world’s supply is finite!) For many years to come, however, petroleum will continue to be important to American transportation, heating, industry and daily life. To ensure a ready supply, oil companies are always looking for new sources and ways to access the petroleum that is trapped in hard to access places. Future oil supplies will likely come from underutilized areas. These include increased offshore drilling off the Gulf Coast and added drilling capacity in Alaska. Canadian oil shale is packed with petroleum that, until now, was prohibitively expensive to recover.

For all of its negatives, petroleum has shaped the world in which we live and work. For the foreseeable future, there’s simply no other power source that can match its yield. The bright side? The energy industry is always looking for new ways to get the most energy out of each drop. Author Box Terry Mickelson has 1 articles online

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