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The Dark Story of Oil: Fueling Progress at a Cost


Oil, often hailed as the lifeblood of the global economy, has a complex and troubled history. While it played a pivotal role in propelling the world into the industrial revolution, its origins and present-day use are marred by the adverse impact it has on our environment. In this article, we delve into the history of oil, its influence on global trade, and the environmental challenges it poses.

The Ancient Use of Unrefined Petroleum

The history of oil consumption stretches back over 5,000 years, with evidence of its use in various sectors and periods. From warfare to cooking and illumination, unrefined petroleum found its way into many facets of human life. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that refined petroleum became a mass industry, transforming the global landscape.

Oil and the Industrial Revolution

Oil catalyzed the industrial revolution, igniting global conflicts and birthing entire economies from arid deserts. Yet, from its inception, oil has been a source of controversy. Over recent decades, it has faced heightened scrutiny for its role in the climate crisis. Top 20 oil producers were held responsible for a staggering 35% of all energy-related carbon emissions worldwide since 1965, as reported by The Guardian.

Concealing Environmental Risks

Reports now indicate that oil executives possessed knowledge of the environmental risks associated with drilling as early as 1955 but chose to conceal this information from the public. As awareness of the adverse impact of oil grows, calls for a transition towards green energy have intensified. However, the transition has been hindered for various reasons, including the influence of the oil industry.

The Origins of Refined Petroleum

Refined petroleum emerged in the 19th century, marking a turning point in the history of oil. James Young, a Scottish chemist, discovered natural petroleum seepage in Alfreton, Derbyshire, in 1847. This discovery led to the development of thin, light oil for lamps and thicker oil for machinery lubrication.

Rise of American Oil

George Bissell, known as the Father of American Oil, pioneered the use of drills to extract oil in Western Pennsylvania. By 1862, oil production in the state had skyrocketed from 450,000 barrels in 1860 to three million barrels. The rule of capture, which allowed surface owners to extract as much oil as they wished, led to fierce competition among nearby wells.

Standard Oil Dominance

John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, consolidated oil refining into a massive industry, controlling 80% of America’s refining capacity by 1879. The rise of Standard Oil exemplified the competitive race to extract every possible drop of oil, despite the documented waste and damage to oil pools.

Global Spread of Oil

The global trade of oil commenced in 1861 when the first cargo ship safely transported petroleum to London. Russia emerged as a significant market for American oil, revolutionizing its workday with the advent of oil-powered illumination. Russian oil production surged from less than 600,000 barrels in 1874 to 10.8 million barrels a decade later.

Oil Wars and Competition

The rapid expansion of Russian production, Standard Oil’s dominance, and the competition for emerging markets led to the Oil Wars. Standard Oil, the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and other Russian producers engaged in fierce battles for control over the resource during the 1890s.

Oil Exploration in the Middle East

The search for oil in the Middle East began in 1901 when British businessman William D’Arcy secured a concession for oil exploration in Persia (modern-day Iran). This marked the start of the race for oil in the region. However, oil production in the Middle East didn’t take off until the 1950s.

The Power Shift and OPEC

As Middle Eastern countries recognized their oil wealth in the 1950s, a power shift occurred. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) used oil as leverage, leading to economic crises like the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 2022 OPEC+ decision to cut oil production.

Migration to the Gulf

The surge in oil prices during the mid-20th century led to the creation of “rentier states” in the Persian Gulf. These states, heavily dependent on oil revenues, offered public sector employment, attracting foreign workers from countries like India and the Philippines.

Environmental Costs and Cover-Ups

Despite the push for green energy, oil remains dominant in various industries. Oil companies have faced criticism for concealing the environmental impact of their products. Reports suggest that they were aware of climate change risks for decades but engaged in deception campaigns.

Oil Companies at a Crossroads

Oil companies have come under pressure to address their environmental impact. While some have initiated efforts to reduce emissions, others face accusations of symbolic actions without substantial change. The future of oil companies amid growing environmental concerns remains uncertain.

In conclusion, oil’s journey from ancient times to modern industry is marked by its transformative influence on the global economy and its adverse environmental consequences. As the world grapples with the climate crisis, the role of oil companies in shaping a sustainable future remains a topic of critical importance.

Source: Indian Express – “The Dark Story of Oil: Fueling Progress at a Cost”

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