My History With Oil

It is truly amazing to consider the ingenuity that has gone into turning a black, dense rock two miles below Earth’s surface into a product that can be molded into any shape and used to save lives. This is my history with oil.
By Tessa Sandstrom | October 22, 2014

The intensive care unit is not a place to spend a weekend. Unfortunately, I recently spent time there to visit my four-week-old niece. I distinctly remember the plastic tubes hooked into her nose during that visit. The tubes were in place to provide her with vital antibiotics needed to treat a serious infection. As I left the hospital after visiting her, I remember thinking about those tubes and how they correlated to a book I had been reading detailing innovative technologies or inventions that at one time were deemed remarkable, but today, seem commonplace. It was clear to me that those plastic tubes, however commonplace to an ICU unit they might be, were a remarkable invention. The tubes are derived from oil.

“Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place,” says the book, “How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made The Modern World.” That passage of the book sticks out to me today after my visit to the ICU, and it is the basis behind a point all of us need to remember, but often forget: oil is a remarkable product that we need to be thankful for even if it has become commonplace.

Oil, of course, has been in use for centuries before it made North Dakota the economic powerhouse it is today. Oil that seeped naturally to the surface was used for fueling lamps, making paint and mortar, and waterproofing boats, among other uses. Refining of crude oil began as early as the mid-1700s, and scientists, inventors and innovators were continually learning new ways to use this valuable resource. Among them was the refining of kerosene from crude oil.

Up to the mid-19th century, lamps were fueled by oil derived from whale fat. This oil burned with less odor and smoke than most fuels and also served as a great lubricant for machine parts in trains. The high demand for this product took a huge toll on whale populations until 1857 when the kerosene lamp first appeared on the market. Kerosene was a cleaner burning and more affordable fuel than whale oil, which was abandoned almost overnight. Oil has, of course, been utilized and tweaked for thousands of other uses outside of the kersone lamp. Most notably for me, oil is used in plastics. From the disposable gloves that help protect the spread of disease to the smallest tubing used to deliver IVs and antibiotics for people such as my little niece in that ICU in Fargo, North Dakota. Plastics, for me, show the truly innovative transformations of a product that has gone from remarkable to commonplace.

It is truly amazing to consider the ingenuity that has gone into turning a black, dense rock two miles below Earth’s surface into a product that can be molded into any shape and used to save lives. It’s a material so diverse that it impacts every waking moment of our lives. It is used to create synthetic materials we wear, it warms our homes, is used in toothpaste and medicine to keep us clean and healthy, and offers the main ingredient to fuel, the same fuel used in the helicopter that got my niece to Sanford’s ICU in minutes rather than hours for those plastic tubes to be inserted. It is fascinating what that chunk of rock can do even if it is taken for granted. It is difficult to weave a complete story about all of the positive impacts oil has had on our lives and society, but for me, the story is about my niece and those plastic tubes. Hopefully your oil story doesn’t involve the ICU.

And, if you aren’t quite sure what your oil story might be, consider this. If you wanted to live without fossil fuels, you would have to go back to the early 1800s, if not earlier. For my niece, that would mean pre-1800s medicine, and no plastic tubes. I can’t help but feel thankful for modern medicine and be proud to work in an industry that plays such a crucial role in delivering it.

Author: Tessa Sandstrom
Communications Manager,
North Dakota Petroleum Council