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Oil trade marks 150 years

Published on 05/09/2009

Titusville -- One hundred and fifty years ago this week in a small Pennsylvania town an indefatigable businessman struck oil, changing the world forever.

Boring a pipe deep into the Titusville ground, Edwin Drake drew black crude to the surface in a process that would be copied all over the world and mark the dawn of the Petroleum Age.

The method, inspired by salt extraction, would eventually create an industry that fuelled dramatic leaps in human development, as well as wars and environmental degradation.

But the technique’s importance was initially felt in the lighting industry, as a replacement for whale and other fats used in lanterns.

"The industry that developed was the kerosene lamp oil business," said Bill Stumpf, who, decked in period costume, operates a replica of the first pump at a Titusville museum.

In the process of developing kerosene, Drake, who sported the military epithet of colonel to lend his project some credence, created gasoline — initially discarded as an unwanted by-product.

But with the development of the internal combustion engine in Europe in the 1880s his technique acquired new importance, eventually making oil the bedrock of the global economy and the world’s most traded commodity.

"That really ushered in the modern age of oil where oil has essentially enabled mankind to be mobile," said Tim Considine, a professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming.

But 150 years on, questions loom over the future of the fuel as oil prices spiked to record highs of over 140 dollars a barrel last year.

"We’ll be seeing the effects of that price shock for the next five, seven years in consumers’ decisions about what car they buy, and how they drive," Considine said.

The methods pioneered by Drake are now so successful that the world’s largest oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are beginning to show signs of decline, according to experts.

Hope is now vested in new developments in Africa, Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico and Russia.

"The key question is whether the production from this larger number of smaller fields will keep pace or offset the decline of what’s happening in the big giants," said Considine.

Despite the grey clouds, Titusville’s 6,000 residents are basking in their town’s former glory — for this week, at least — with the anniversary prompting an influx of visitors.

"The town has never been this loud, this animated. It’s usually pretty quiet," said Lauren, a waitress at the Blue Canoe Cafe.

Pennsylvania’s petroleum glory days are behind it, with hundreds of thousands of wells drilled in the state over the last century and a half having exploited the vast majority of known reserves.

But some residents are looking forward, hoping that the recent expansion of natural gas drilling and production in shale beneath the Pennsylvania earth will spark a new energy boom.

According to local US congressman Glenn Thompson: "This gas shale is the Drake’s well of the 21st century."

Marine Laouchez/AFP/Expatica