How Large is a Barrel of Oil and Why Do We Measure It That Way?
More than just gasoline for our cars, crude oil is transformed into an infinite variety of products we use every day – from personal products like shampoo and lotion, to food preservatives and fertilizers, to the plastic bags and packaging that are ubiquitous today.
A Barrel of Oil
One barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil from which, in the U.S., typically 19 gallons of gasoline are produced. In California, “additional other petroleum products such as alkylates” are added to the crude to create a “processing gain,” such that:
The total volume of products made from crude oil based origins is 48.43 gallons on average – 6.43 gallons greater than the original 42 gallons of crude.
According to the California Energy Commission, each barrel of crude oil yields products as follows:
- Finished Motor Gasoline (51.4% – a bit more than the national average)
- Distillate Fuel Oil (15.3%)
- Jet Fuel (12.3%)
- Still Gas (5.4%)
- Marketable Coke (5.0%)
- Residual Fuel Oil (3.3%)
- Liquid Refinery Gas (2.8%)
- Asphalt and Road Oil (1.7%)
- Other Refined Products (1.5%)
- Lubricants (0.9%)
Why Oil is Measured in Barrels
The market for crude oil really took off after Abraham Gesner began distilling kerosene in 1846. This lamp oil became very popular and as demand increased, so did the need for the crude oil it was derived from. The first successful drilled oil well (previously, it was all gleaned from “natural seepage”) was in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859.
In the mid-1800s, all liquids that needed a tight container of any size were stored in wooden barrels. Skilled coopers (barrel makers) had been producing watertight 42-gallon wooden barrels since Richard III set the size of a tierce of wine at 42 gallons in 1483-1484. However, to catch the oil booming from the new wells in Titusville, early producers were using any watertight container they could get their hands on, including “wooden tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes.”
Nonetheless, the size of the container quickly became standardized around the 42-gallon barrel, due to practical considerations:
A 42-gallon tierce weighed more than 300 pounds – about as much as a man could reasonably wrestle. Twenty would fit on a typical barge or railroad flatcar. Bigger casks were unmanageable and small were less profitable.
By 1860, in Pennsylvania the 42-gallon barrel had become standard. Because Pennsylvania was at the forefront of the early oil boom, its practices were soon adopted across the country.
In 1872, 42 gallons became the standard for the Petroleum Producers Association and in 1882, the U.S.G.S. and the U.S. Bureau of Mines adopted the standard as well.
Bulk oil shipping – placing the oil in the cargo holds of ships – had been used since the 1870s, as had “cylindrical railroad tank cars.” By 1883, oil tankers were being built with bulkheads to stop the free-flowing oil in the holds from sloshing and potentially causing the ships to capsize.
In the 1950s, in response to the closing of the Suez Canal, larger tankers that could more efficiently transport oil around the Cape of Good Hope were needed, and so the supertanker was born, and by 1958, ships that held about 700,000 barrels were being used to transport crude oil.
As of 2011, the largest supertankers, the TI Europe and the TI Oceania, were able to carry over 3,000,000 barrels of oil in a single voyage.
Pipelines were being used to transport crude oil from the beginning of the oil boom in the 1860s, but not until the early 1900s, when demand for petroleum greatly increased, were pipelines built across the country:
During the 1920s, driven by the growth of the automobile industry, total U.S. pipeline mileage grew to over 115,000 miles.
Early pipelines brought crude oil from “the prolific fields in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to the refineries in the East,” and with the increased migration of Americans across the West, the pipelines moved in that direction as well.
After oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 1968, an 800-mile pipeline, from Valdez to Prince William Sound, known as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, was constructed and completed in 1977. At its height in the 1980s, it was carrying over 2,000,000 barrels each day. By 2012, that was reduced to 579,000.
Today’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is set to transport crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, where:
It would connect with existing pipelines to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The U.S. segment would be 875 miles long, running through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The 36-inch diameter line could carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day.
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Bonus Oil Facts
- The U.S. State Department estimates that over 42,000 temporary jobs, and about 50 permanent jobs, would be created in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. According to FactCheck.org, “oil from Canadian bitumen deposits – which the Keystone would carry from Alberta to the U.S. for refining – results in 14 percent to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than oil typically consumed in the U.S. at present.“
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 29% of all methane, the second most prevalent human-caused greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming, is produced by our use of natural gas and petroleum.
- “Petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers . . . can result in an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorous in the ground . . . [and] runoff of chemicals . . . can cause “dead zones” in larger bodies of water.” The runoff of nitrogen from lawns and farms eventually travels through the watersheds and ends up in places like the Gulf of Mexico where the nitrogen encourages the growth of algae that absorbs the oxygen in the water, causing massive die-offs in the ocean, including of valuable fish and shellfish species.
- According to a 2006 report, “globally, harmful algal blooms are considerably more widespread and frequent . . . a situation that is expected to further deteriorate by 2020 due to increased application of agricultural fertilizers.”
- Nitrogen fertilizers cause nitrates to accumulate in drinking water, and according to a 2001 report, it is “statistically associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer . . . and women drinking water with average nitrate levels greater than 2.46 ppm were 2.83 times more likely to develop bladder cancer than women exposed to 0.36 ppm of nitrates in water.“
- According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to form their delicate shells and skeletons, many sea organisms require calcium carbonate minerals; however, as increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from man-made emissions is “absorbed by seawater, chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH . . . and calcium carbonate minerals [in a process called] ocean acidification.” Without sufficient amounts of these skeletal building blocks, “near total failures of developing oysters” are being experienced along the West Coast and “ocean acidification [may] severely impact . . . coral reefs [that] may erode faster than they can be rebuilt.“
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- Trans-Alaska Pipeline
- What’s in a Barrel of Oil?
- What is Ocean Acidification?
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