Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum

Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)

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Chapter 7 - The Carboniferous Period

Lesson 37: Oil


     Petroleum ( petroleum, from Latin: petra rock + oleum oil) or crude oil is a naturally occurring, toxic, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights, and other organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface.


Chapter 7 - The Carboniferous Period


Lesson 36: Overview

Lesson 37:  Coal

Lesson 38:  Oil

Lessson 39: Species In-Depth - Bivalves




     In its strictest sense, petroleum includes only crude oil, but in common usage it includes both crude oil and natural gas. Both crude oil and natural gas are predominantly a mixture of hydrocarbons. Under surface pressure and temperature conditions, the lighter hydrocarbons methane, ethane, propane and butane occur as gases, while the heavier ones from pentane and up are in the form of liquids or solids. However, in the underground oil reservoir the proportion which is gas or liquid varies depending on the subsurface conditions, and on the phase diagram of the petroleum mixture.

     An oil well produces predominantly crude oil, with some natural gas dissolved in it. Because the pressure is lower at the surface than underground, some of the gas will come out of solution and be recovered (or burned) as associated gas or solution gas. A gas well produces predominately natural gas. However, because the underground temperature and pressure are higher than at the surface, the gas may contain heavier hydrocarbons such as pentane, hexane, and heptane in the gaseous state. Under surface conditions these will condense out of the gas and form natural gas condensate, often shortened to condensate. Condensate resembles gasoline in appearance and is similar in composition to some volatile light crude oils.

     The proportion of light hydrocarbons in the petroleum mixture is highly variable between different oil fields and ranges from as much as 97% by weight in the lighter oils to as little as 50% in the heavier oils and bitumens.

     Crude oil varies greatly in appearance depending on its composition. It is usually black or dark brown (although it may be yellowish or even greenish). In the reservoir it is usually found in association with natural gas, which being lighter forms a gas cap over the petroleum, and saline water which, being heavier than most forms of crude oil, generally sinks beneath it. Crude oil may also be found in semi-solid form mixed with sand and water, as in the Athabasca oil sands in Canada, where it is usually referred to as crude bitumen. In Canada, bitumen is considered a sticky, tar-like form of crude oil which is so thick and heavy that it must be heated or diluted before it will flow. Venezuela also has large amounts of oil in the Orinoco oil sands, although the hydrocarbons trapped in them are more fluid than in Canada and are usually called extra vheay oil. These oil sands resources are called unconventional oil to distinguish them from oil which can be extracted using traditional oil well methods. Between them, Canada and Venezuela contain an estimated 3.6 trillion barrels (570×10^9 m3) of bitumen and extra-heavy oil, about twice the volume of the world's reserves of conventional oil.

     Petroleum is used mostly, by volume, for producing fuel oil and gasoline, both
Oil Reserves
Worldwide Oil Reserves (2009)
 important "primary energy" sources. 84% by volume of the hydrocarbons present in petroleum is converted into energy-rich fuels (petroleum-based fuels), including gasoline, diesel, jet, heating, and other fuel oils, and liquefied petroleum gas. The lighter grades of crude oil produce the best yields of these products, but as the world's reserves of light and medium oil are depleted, oil refineries are increasingly having to process heavy oil and bitumen, and use more complex and expensive methods to produce the products required. Because heavier crude oils have too much carbon and not enough hydrogen, these processes generally involve removing carbon from or adding hydrogen to the molecules, and using fluid catalytic cracking to convert the longer, more complex molecules in the oil to the shorter, simpler ones in the fuels.

     Due to its high energy density, easy transportability and relative abundance, oil has become the world's most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials. Petroleum is found in porous rock formations in the upper strata of some areas of the Earth's crust. There is also petroleum in oil sands (tar sands). Known reserves of petroleum are typically estimated at around 190 km3 (1.2 trillion (short scale) barrels) without oil sands, or 595 km3 (3.74 trillion barrels) with oil sands. Consumption is currently around 84 million barrels (13.4×10^6 m3) per day, or 4.9 km3 per year.




     According to generally accepted theory, petroleum is derived from ancient biomass. It is a fossil fuel derived from ancient fossilized organic materials. The theory was initially based on the isolation of molecules from petroleum that closely resemble known biomolecules.

More specifically, crude oil and natural gas are products of heating of ancient organic materials (i.e. kerogen) over geological time. Formation of petroleum occurs from hydrocarbon pyrolysis, in a variety of mostly endothermic reactions at high temperature and/or pressure. Today's oil formed from the preserved remains of prehistoric zooplankton and algae, which had settled to a sea or lake bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions (the remains of prehistoric terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tended to form coal). Over geological time the organic matter mixed with mud, and was buried under heavy layers of sediment resulting in high levels of heat and pressure (diagenesis). This process caused the organic matter to change, first into a waxy material known as kerogen, which is found in various oil shales around the world, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons via a process known as catagenesis.

     Geologists often refer to the temperature range in which oil forms as an "oil window"—below the minimum temperature oil remains trapped in the form of kerogen, and above the maximum temperature the oil is converted to natural gas through the process of thermal cracking. Sometimes, oil which is formed at extreme depths may migrate and become trapped at much shallower depths than where it was formed. The Athabasca Oil Sands is one example of this.


Crude Oil Reservoirs


     Three conditions must be present for oil reservoirs to form: a source rock that is rich in hydrocarbon material buried deep enough for subterranean heat to cook it into oil; a porous
Hydrocarbon Trap (Green=Shale, Red=Oil, Yellow=Sand) (Picture Source)
 and permeable reservoir rock for it to accumulate in. There a rock cap (seal) prevents it from escaping towards the surface. Within these reservoirs, fluids will typically organize themselves like a three-layer cake with a layer of water below the oil layer and a layer of gas above it, although the different layers vary in size between reservoirs. Because most hydrocarbons are lighter than rock or water, they often migrate upward through adjacent rock layers until either reaching the surface or becoming trapped within porous rocks (known as oil reservoir) underneath impermeable (not permeable), rocks above. However, this process can influenced by underground water flows, causing petroleum to migrate hundreds of kilometers horizontally, and even short distances downward, before becoming trapped in an oil reservoir. When hydrocarbons are concentrated in a trap, an oil field forms, from which the liquid or natural gas can be extracted by drilling and allowing the petroleum to escape under its natual pressure. Pumping is only utilized as a last resort for recovering petroleum.

     The reactions that produce oil and natural gas are often modeled as first order breakdown reactions, where hydrocarbons are broken down to oil and natural gas by a set of parallel reactions, and oil eventually breaks down to natural gas by another set of reactions. The latter set is regularly used in petrochemical plants and oil refineries.

     People drill articificial oil wells into oil reservoirs to extract the crude oil and the natural gas. "Natural lift" production methods that rely on the natural reservoir pressure to force the oil to the surface are usually sufficient for a while after reservoirs are first tapped. In some reservoirs, such as in the Middle East, the natural pressure is sufficient over a very long time. The natural pressure in many reservoirs, however, is eventually used up. Then, any more oil to be recovered must be either pumped out using an “artificial lift” created by mechanical pumps powered by internal-combustion engines or electric motors, or by the pressure of large amounts of ordinary water or natural gas injected into the oil reservoir. Over time, these "primary" methods become less effective and "secondary" production methods may be used. A common secondary method is “waterflood” or injection of water into the reservoir to increase pressure and force the oil to the drilled shaft or "wellbore." Eventually "tertiary" or "enhanced" oil recovery methods may be used to increase the oil's flow characteristics by injecting steam, carbon dioxide, or other gases or chemicals into the reservoir. In the United States, primary production methods usually account for less than 40% of the oil produced on a daily basis, secondary methods account for about half, and tertiary recovery the remaining 10%. Extracting oil (or “bitumen”) from oil/tar sand and oil shale deposits requires mining the sand or shale and heating it in a vessel or retort, or using “in-situ” methods of injecting heated liquids into the deposit and then pumping out the oil-saturated liquid.


End of Lesson

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