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The Complete History Of Fossil Fuels

Tom Kool

Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy in the world today. But people started using fossil fuels long before the first steam engine running on coal or the first commercially drilled oil well. 

Some forms of petroleum, coal, and natural gas were used thousands of years ago by various civilizations on various continents, according to historical records and archaeological finds. 

The history of the use of fossil fuels is as old as is the history of human civilization. Of course, early uses of fossil fuels cannot compare in volume to today’s exploration, extraction, processing, and trading industries in the three main fossil fuels - crude oil, natural gas, and coal.  

Those three fuels combined account for the majority of the global energy use now. In ancient times, the use of fossil fuels may have been limited due to lack of knowledge and technology, but civilizations tried and, to some extent, managed to make the most of the fossil fuel resources they could extract and use in their everyday lives.   

This complete history of fossil fuels will dwell on:

- Early uses of fossil fuels 

- How the Industrial Revolution changed the world

- When the first commercial oil well was drilled 

- The invention that changed the early use of oil and made it a key source of energy 

- How the World Wars drove up oil demand 

- How we use fossil fuels today 

Fossil fuels are a class of materials formed from dead organisms that sunk below the surface of the earth millions of years ago. All fossil fuels were organic material once, but different geological conditions such as pressure, temperature, rocks, and sediment, have led to the formation of different types of fossil fuels. 

For a comprehensive overview of fossil fuels, the types of fossil fuels, modern uses of fossil fuels, and the share of fossil fuels in today’s energy demand, check out The Complete Guide To Fossil Fuels

Early Uses of Fossil Fuels 

Civilizations used petroleum in various forms thousands of years ago, long before any oil well was actually drilled or any oil corporation was formed. 

Ancient civilizations did not have the technology to either drill or refine oil, but they used the petroleum that they found seeping on the surface for construction and waterproofing. 

According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, bitumen from a small tributary of the River Euphrates (in modern-day Iraq), was used for the construction of the wall of Babylon, the most famous city of ancient Mesopotamia. 

Mesopotamians also used bitumen for road construction and sealing and waterproofing their boats. The Sumerian civilization—which dominated the Mesopotamia region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what we now refer to as the Middle East between 4,000 B.C. and 2,000 B.C.—used asphalt to glue their mosaic works on floors and walls. Mosaics and brick columns were one of the achievements in art and architecture of Sumerians.  

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In ancient Egypt, some of the mummies of humans and animals were mummified with the use of bitumen, but this wasn’t the typical substance to use for embalming mummies, according to the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at Illinois. 

Oil was also used for lighting. Oil was lit in a firepan, which was later replaced by the wick oil lamp. 

The Romans used oil found in the Dacia province, which is now Romania, to burn as weapon to use in warfare. 

The Chinese found oil reservoirs in salt wells and drilled wells deep 100 feet to reach natural gas and oil in underground reservoirs at some point around 500 B.C. A few hundred years later, the Chinese also built bamboo pipes to carry natural gas to homes for heating and lighting. 

Some cultures also used petroleum as skin medicinal treatment as civilizations such as the ancient Persians, pre-Columbian Indians, and Sumatrans in the 10th century believed that crude oil had medicinal benefits. Native Americans would use soft asphalt, or hard asphalt melted in the sun, to glue arrows to shafts and knives to handles. 

Early civilizations were puzzled by natural gas, and before the understanding of what natural gas actually was, people attributed supernatural and religious origins to fires spontaneously occurring on the earth’s surface when, for example, lightning stuck and ignited natural gas that had seeped through the earth’s crust to the surface. 

The ancient Chinese civilizations and the Persians are thought to have used natural gas to heat homes. 

By the 19th century, natural gas was predominantly used for lighting in lamps, including streetlamps. 

Coal, for its part, is much more widespread than oil and natural gas which are concentrated in reservoirs in some places around the world. 

People have been using coal since the cavemen and have been mining coal for more than 1,000 years—in China as well as in the UK. Archaeological relics found in Britain suggest that coal was used during the Roman rule on the British Isles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Romans even took some coal back with them to Rome. 

In the 13th century, Marco Polo described the use of coal in China. In the 15th and 16th century in Europe, coal became an increasingly important fuel for heating of homes after the invention of chimneys made of firebricks. 

But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which began in the middle of the 18th century, that coal and later oil and natural gas became key energy sources for the industry and households in the UK and overseas. 

The Industrial Revolution 

The Industrial Revolution, with the invention of the steam engine, started manufacturing production, machines, and factories which, combined, ushered the society into the modern era. The steam engine made by James Watt became the main driver of the Industrial Revolution. 

That steam engine was powered with coal. 

Coal, an abundant source of power drive, replaced water, which was the key source of power before the Industrial Revolution. With coal and steam engines, industrial activity began as steam-powered machines made mass production possible. 

The Industrial Revolution changed the way people worked and traveled. People traveled on steamships and steam-powered trains, which burned coal to power their boilers. Those became the main means of transportation.  

In the first half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution reached the United States. Several coal mines began operating in the U.S. Coal began to replace wood as a source for heating, because it gave off much more energy than wood and because it was easier to transport. Coal consumption was steadily growing and outpacing the use of wood for energy. 

During the Civil War, factories making weapons began to use coal, which is abundant in the United States. Coke made from coal was already replacing charcoal as the main fuel for steel-making furnaces by the late 19th century. 

Coal was first used for electricity generation in the United States in the 1880s. Half a century later, by the early 1960s, coal had already become the predominant energy source of U.S. electricity generation. 

First Commercial Oil & Gas Wells   

Civilizations throughout history drilled for oil before the Industrial Revolution, but technology and knowledge were not widespread. In many cases, the finding of crude oil in a well dug up to mine for salt brine was viewed as nuisance and an unnecessary by-product of the drillers’ primary target—salt. 

In the mid-18th century, well owners encountered oil in Pennsylvania and New York, but they were digging for salt and didn’t entirely understand what use they could make of crude oil.   

With the advance of drilling technology and techniques, and with greater understanding of the potential uses of oil, in the middle of the 19th century people began to purposefully target crude oil when drilling a well.  

The first modern commercial oil well was drilled by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. Drake had studied how well owners drilled for salt and decided he could do a similar job drilling for oil in Titusville. He worked with the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, which was gathering the oil that was seeping through the ground. Drake decided that drilling a well to reach the oil would be a more viable enterprise than collecting the oil that is seeping through the surface. Drake used a drill-pipe to reach the oil deposit, but later failed to patent his drilling method. Still, Drake encountered oil in August 1859, and this achievement is considered the first successful commercial drilling for oil. Titusville, Pennsylvania, today hosts the Drake Well Museum and Park, the birthplace of modern petroleum history.  

The Invention That Changed The Oil Industry 

By the time Drake drilled the first commercial oil well, the main use of crude oil was in kerosene lamps for lighting. Growing demand for kerosene created the first ‘oil rush’.  

Then at the end of the 19th century, a new invention would change the demand for petroleum products around the world forever—the first car with an internal combustion engine (ICE). The first automobile running on a refined product of crude oil—gasoline—was invented by German engineer Carl Benz in 1885

In the United States, Henry Ford launched the Model T in 1908—a mass market affordable automobile which drove up demand for gasoline. The mass production of cars led to gasoline soon outpacing kerosene as oil’s refined product most in demand. By the middle of the 20th century, oil became the most used energy source in the United States thanks to gasoline demand.  

Today, a U.S. 42-gallon barrel of crude oil yields about 45 gallons of petroleum products in U.S. refineries because of refinery processing gain, with gasoline the top product, according to the EIA.    

Oil and Wars  

On top of oil demand from automobiles, the World Wars also created demand for petroleum products as trucks, tanks, and warships all needed fuel. Navies and armies expanded their fleets and war power and demand for oil around the world continued to grow, also thanks to the manufacturing and industrial upsurge. 

The Creation of the Oil Majors 

By the late 19th century, there was one dominant oil company in the United States—Standard Oil Company, founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1870. Standard Oil Company controlled as much as 80 percent of the production and distribution of petroleum products in the United States at the end of the 19th century. In 1911, following antitrust lawsuits and federal court orders, Standard Oil was split up into 34 separate companies, predominantly on the basis of the regions (or states) in which they operated within the U.S. The largest of those split companies have evolved over the past century via mergers and acquisitions and name changes to become the supermajors of today’s U.S. oil industry. 

For example, Standard Oil of New Jersey eventually became Exxon, Standard Oil of New York became Mobil, and Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999 to create ExxonMobil. Standard Oil of California, for its part, became what is now Chevron

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Around the time Standard Oil Company was broken up in the United States, the oil supermajors in Europe were established. Shell Transport and Trading Company merged with Royal Dutch to form the Royal Dutch Shell Group in 1907. 

The prospectus for a new company, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, was issued in 1909 in London and Glasgow. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, created to explore and find oil in Persia, would one day become what we know now as BP

Source: Visual Capitalist 

How We Use Fossil Fuels Today 

The oil majors continue to produce huge volumes of oil and natural gas every day. Today, the world uses enormous amounts of energy, and most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. Energy demand is expected to continue to increase, although the share of coal in the global energy mix is set to drop in the coming decades, increasingly replaced by natural gas and renewable energy sources. 

The advance of hydraulic fracturing and the shale revolution in the past decade made the United States the world’s top crude oil and natural gas producer.   

Primary energy consumption in the United States hit a record in 2018, rising by 4 percent from 2017 and 0.3 percent above the previous record set in 2007, according to EIA estimates. The increase in 2018 was the largest increase in energy consumption, in both absolute and percentage terms, since 2010, the EIA says. 

U.S. consumption of fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—increased by 4 percent in 2018 and accounted for 80 percent of U.S. total energy consumption. Natural gas consumption jumped by 10 percent on the year in 2018, and this surge, together with relatively smaller increases in the consumption of petroleum fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear electric power, more than offset a 4-percent decline in coal consumption. 

Global energy demand in that same year, 2018, increased by 2.3 percent—the fastest growth rate since 2010, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its most recent estimate of global energy demand. 

“Natural gas emerged as the fuel of choice, posting the biggest gains and accounting for 45% of the rise in energy consumption. Gas demand growth was especially strong in the United States and China,” the IEA said. 

According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, global primary energy consumption grew by 2.9 percent in 2018, the fastest growth since 2010, led by natural gas and renewables. China, the U.S., and India together accounted for more than two thirds of the global growth in energy demand. Energy consumption in the United States rose at its fastest rate for 30 years, as per BP estimates. 

Despite increased attention on carbon emissions and climate change in recent years, and despite calls for ‘leave it in the ground’, fossil fuels are set to continue playing an important role in the world’s energy consumption.

By Tom Kool for Oilprice.com 

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