The Life Cycle of a Barrel of Oil

So many essential tools and items we use in our lives are made possible by oil and natural gas, whose story all starts in the ground beneath our feet.

To understand the life cycle of a barrel of oil, we first need to understand how it is found. 

The development process of oil is long and complex; oil and natural gas don’t “act” the way most people think. They’re not the same product from ground to gas pump or ground to crayon, as different oils have vastly different life cycles. To know what oil is used for and navigate the “end products” of plastics, fabrics, fuels, and the infrastructure surrounding them, we need to learn how oil is found, produced, and refined for use.

How is the oil first found?

The search for an oil deposit usually begins with identifying a geologic formation/reservoir that may hold oil and/or natural gas. In the old days, this could have been based on gut feelings, seeing a hill and thinking the subsurface may have a similar structure trapping oil, or other not-so-scientific methods. In the modern day, geologists have access to a lot of scientific information, including core samples, logs from previously drilled wells, and seismic data. They also can tap into research compiled by entities such as the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) or state agencies that regulate oil and gas exploration/development.

Once a geologist has identified what they believe to be a potential reservoir, petroleum engineers are brought in to help analyze the likely scale and viability of those reservoirs. If it still looks like a winner, the next step is for the oil and gas exploration company (“E&P” company) to secure the rights to drill. This typically means sending a land manager (“landman”) to verify the ownership of the subsurface property and to negotiate a lease with the landowner(s) to create a drillable unit, or bidding on the rights for a federal lease for federally owned lands.

At this point in its life cycle, the oil belongs either to the federal government or individuals who own the subsurface rights (“mineral rights”). The lease will specify what percentage of the production proceeds go to the landowner. Its “value” at this stage is not yet fully known. Geologists and petroleum engineers can give estimates, but because of the massive amount of variables and unknowns — including the volatile nature of oil prices further down the line — the value will change countless times before oil is actually extracted and refined.

How is the oil produced?

The E&P company will prepare to drill once the leases are secured and the title is verified. This can be a long process, including selecting the drill site, permitting, preparing the drilling/pad site, and building the infrastructure (roads to and from the well site, pipelines, electricity, etc.) to safely and efficiently bring the product to market.

Once a well is drilled, more scientific tests, including core samples evaluation and well logs, are run to help determine if it will be viable to produce and estimate reserves. If it is approved for the next step, then the well is completed and (hopefully) produced. 

After the product is produced by the “upstream” E&P company and reaches the surface, crude oil’s current market value can be more reliably estimated and is sold to a “midstream” company. Royalty owners also receive a royalty check at this point of sale for their portion of the proceeds as specified in the lease. It is important to note that the E&P company bears the expenses of the entire process to this point — the royalty owners do not share in the costs. 

The midstream company then handles the transportation, storage, and marketing of the product to the “downstream” refineries or processors. 

What can be produced from this oil?

Once the oil comes downstream to a refinery or processing facility, it will be turned into usable products. 

Oil is refined into a myriad of products that are foundational for our everyday life, from gasoline to plastic. Crude oil varies drastically depending on where it came from and how it was formed. Some have high paraffin/wax content, which can be used for cosmetics or polishes. It can come in many different colors (green, yellow, black, etc.). It can be thick and viscous or light and runny. Each has its own best uses and can be refined to yield different end products. 

Now nearing the end of its life cycle, the barrel of oil has a more specific purpose and is on to an equally specific location based on its product type — to the consumer.

What do people use in their everyday lives that come from oil? 

There are too many individual products to name! Wherever you are right now, innumerable things around you will be made, at least in part, out of oil. But we can take a look at the main kinds of products that come from oil production.

Out of the 7.2 billion barrels of petroleum consumed in 2021, 44% was used as motor fuel and 20% as distillate fuel. The rest was turned into other petroleum products.

Fabrics and surfaces are one major example. Clothing fibers like nylon and polyester. Road surfaces like tar and asphalt. Tent fabric. Diaper material. Solar panels. Coverings and coatings and shells and packages. Shoes and tights. Not to mention the dyes used to color and pattern those fabrics. 

Even charging stations for electric cars are fueled by power that requires oil and natural gas. We also have oil to thank for cosmetics and other everyday products like deodorant, lipstick, and toothpaste. 

One of the most important daily uses of oil is medical use. From the artificial limb that helps someone to live a full life after an accident to contact lenses, dentures, pacemakers, and MRI machines, oil is refined and manufactured into these life-changing products.

Oil and natural gas are an integral part of our daily living, beyond the gasoline in our vehicles or the natural gas that heats homes and other buildings. So many essential tools and items making up the details of our lives are made possible by oil and natural gas. And its story all starts with an eye on the outcrops and the ground beneath our feet.

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