The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Titusville or Bust

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 20, 2009

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the first successful oil well drilled in the United States. In 1859, Col. Edwin Drake drilled down to a depth of 69½ feet near a creek in Pennsylvania where oil naturally seeped out of the ground and in the process, he changed the American way of life.

Before "Drake's Folly" proved that oil could be produced by drilling, Americans used wood and coal for heat and a variety of fuels for lamps, including whale oil. As API Chief Economist John Felmy recently pointed out, in 1850 consumers could use camphene, also called "burning fluid," at the cost of 50 cents a gallon; whale oil, which cost $1.30 to $2.50 a gallon; lard oil at 90 cents a gallon; or coal oil, which cost 50 cents a gallon. Some have speculated that Col. Drake's drilling technology saved the whales.

On Friday and Saturday, a group of economists and energy experts from the Washington area are planning to travel by bus to Pennsylvania to the site of Col. Drake's well. They call their tour "Rock Oil 2009." One of the travelers is API Senior Economist Sara Banaszak. Today she filed the following dispatch:

"Before the production of "rock oil" (crude oil) began 150 years ago--prior to the Civil War--people used whale oil for their dimly lit homes. The whale oil was expensive, many whale populations were overhunted, and whaling was dangerous for people too. That's why the idea of drilling for crude oil was hailed as a great discovery."

"Tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a bus with about 50 energy experts from the Washington DC area, and we're going up to Titusville and Pithole City, Pennsylvania, to look at the home of the first oil boom and the first successful oil drilling operation."

"Thinking about how far back our oil use started and the alternatives available then is like thinking about the scale of just how much oil we consume today - it helps explain why the expansion of alternative energy sources is going to take time. Hopefully I'm seeing the start of a great energy efficiency and alternative energy boom, but both the U.S. and the world will continue to consume a flow of oil to fuel homes, cars, and a comfy, healthy way of life while we steer ourselves there."

John Felmy notes that it took 90 years for the United States to move from a largely coal-based economy to becoming primarily based on oil (1859-1950). It's likely that a transition to a new fuel--or a combination of new fuels--in the future also will take several years.