I Can't Believe It's Oil!
Humans have been using petroleum for thousands of years, long before drilling technology arrived in the mid-1800s. Ancient cultures used it as an adhesive and to caulk the seams of wooden ships. The Chinese used it as a fuel to heat homes and light their lamps. Oil was skimmed from water surfaces and captured from areas where there was above-ground seepage.

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Oil Dependency
Up until the 1950s, the United States produced the vast majority of the oil it consumed. That changed as post-war industrialization and the era of the automobile drove up demand. Demand was further increased as inventors and chemists created new ways to use oil as a basic ingredient in a wide variety of new products. (You already know the name of one of the big innovators. Learn more in J.D. Rockefeller: From Oil Baron To Billionaire.)

After the oil embargo of the mid-1970s, a strategic petroleum reserve was created to provide a buffer against future disruptions in foreign supplies. Today, the U.S. imports the majority of its oil, with Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico as the top three suppliers. (For more, see Peak Oil: Problems And Possibilities.)

Oil Today
It's no surprise that most petroleum products are used to generate energy. Gasoline and diesel fuel power our cars and trucks, and kerosene and jet fuel keep our airplanes flying. Some of the propane we use is separated from crude oil during the refining process. On average, a 42-gallon barrel of refined crude oil yields about 19 gallons of gasoline and 9 gallons of diesel, with the remainder used to make other petroleum-based products.

The following breakdown for one barrel of crude is based on data from the U. S. Energy Information Administration. The total of 45 gallons includes a three-gallon gain from additives used in the refining process.

Number of GallonsRefined Products






Other products


Jet fuel


Liquefied petroleum gasses


Heavy fuel oil


Heating oil and other distillates


Total gallons from one processed barrel

Fuels and Oils
The range of fuels and lubricants made from petroleum is wide-ranging and touches every industry. Factories could not operate, and the machinery used to make other products wouldn't function either. The ships and trains that ferry these products around the world all run on fuels made from oil. Oil also provides the energy for electricity generation in many power plants.

Beyond the fuels that power our entire transportation system, engines also depend on motor oil and grease for lubrication. Homeowners depend on a variety of oil derivatives to repair everything from squeaky hinges to lawnmowers. Heating oil is widely used across the country, both in residential and commercial buildings.

Medicines and Toiletries
Throughout history, people used oil from seeps that leaked oil from below ground without drilling or digging. In ancient times, this liquid was applied to wounds by the Egyptians. The Native Americans also used oil for treating wounds and they passed on their knowledge to George Washington's army. His soldiers used oil to treat frostbite while hunkered down at Valley Forge.

More recently, uses include: deodorants, petroleum jelly, moisturizers, rubbing alcohol, soaps, heart valves, antiseptics, hearing aids, nasal decongestants, antihistamines, moisturizers, Bactine, vaporizers, latex gloves, bandages, allergy medications, aspirin, burn lotions, insect repellants, anesthetics, artificial limbs, cough syrup, cologne, dentures, stethoscopes, syringes, glycerin, cortisone, cosmetics, dentures, vitamins and synthetic wigs.

Other Products
One of the biggest uses is the manufacture of plastics, which are carbon-based polymer compounds. Because the compounds are inert, they can be used to store other substances without chemical interaction. Plastics are also easily shaped and molded into toys, bottles, computer housings, car interiors and thousands of other products.

Synthetic fibers in clothing such as polyester, nylon, rayon and artificial furs are derived from petroleum. Other products include: crayons, athletic shoes, fertilizer, paint, synthetic rubber, ammonia, computer disks, eyeglass lenses, bubble gum, ink, asphalt, adhesives, candles, antifreeze, carpet, glue, shoe polish, matches, packaging, shingles, linoleum, wiring, dishwashing liquid and many other cleaning products.

The Bottom Line
It's clear that our dependence on oil won't go away soon, even if the internal combustion engine disappeared overnight. Black gold is an integral part of virtually every aspect of everyday life as we know it. Green energy may help to reduce our need for fossil-based fuels, but it won't curb the demand for all the other products that depend on this valuable resource. (Worried about what happens when we're out of oil? Check out Peak Oil: What To Do When The Wells Run Dry.)

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