What Is Petroleum?

Petroleum is a naturally occurring liquid found beneath the earth’s surface that can be refined into fuel. Petroleum is a fossil fuel, meaning that it has been created by the decomposition of organic matter over millions of years. Petroleum is formed when large quantities of dead organisms–primarily zooplankton and algae–underneath sedimentary rock are subjected to intense heat and pressure.

Key Takeaways

  • Petroleum is a naturally occurring liquid found beneath the earth’s surface that can be refined into fuel.
  • Petroleum is used as fuel to power vehicles, heating units, and machines, as well as it can be converted into plastics and other materials.
  • The extraction and processing of petroleum, and thus, its availability, is a major driver of the world's economy and global politics.

Petroleum is used as fuel to power vehicles, heating units, and machines, as well as being converted into plastics and other materials. Because the majority of the world relies on petroleum for many goods and services, the petroleum industry is extremely powerful and is a major influence on world politics and the global economy.

Understanding Petroleum

The extraction and processing of petroleum, and thus, its availability, is a major driver of the world's economy and geopolitics. Some of the largest companies in the world are involved in the extraction and processing of petroleum, and many other companies create products that are petroleum-based, including plastics, fertilizers, automobiles, and airplanes, for example. Asphalt, which is used to pave highways, is made from petroleum. Vehicles that drive on highways are made of materials derived from petroleum and run on fuels that are derived from petroleum.

Petroleum is recovered by oil drilling. After it has been recovered, it is refined and separated. It is most commonly refined into different types of fuels. Petroleum contains hydrocarbons of different molecular weights. In general, the denser the petroleum the more difficult it is to process and the less valuable it is.

In the petroleum industry, petroleum companies are divided into upstream, midstream and downstream. This refers to an oil and gas company's position in the supply chain. Upstream oil and gas companies identify, extract, or produce raw materials. Downstream oil companies engage in business related to the post-production of crude oil and natural gas. Midstream oil and gas companies connect downstream and upstream companies, typically by participating in the storage and transportation of oil and other refined products.

Disadvantages of Petroleum

Petroleums are a part of our everyday lives. However, the extraction process and the byproducts of the use of petroleum is toxic to the environment. Underwater drilling causes leaks, extraction from oil sands strips the earth and uses precious water, and fracking destroys the water table. Transporting petroleum through pipelines has the potential to destroy the local environment and shipping petroleum risks spills and uses energy.

Global petroleum use has had a negative impact on the wider environment because the carbon released into the atmosphere increases temperatures and is associated with global warming. Many products created with petroleum derivatives do not biodegrade quickly, and the overuse of fertilizers has damaged water supplies.