History of the petroleum industry in North America

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The history of the petroleum industry in the United States goes back to the early 19th century, although the indigenous peoples, like many ancient societies, have used petroleum seeps since prehistoric times; where found, these seeps signaled the growth of the industry from the earliest discoveries to the more recent. Petroleum became a major industry following the oil discovery at Oil Creek Pennsylvania in 1859. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the US was the largest oil producing country in the world; it is now the 3rd largest.


Before the Drake well

Native Americans had known of the oil in western Pennsylvania, and had made some use of it for many years before the mid-19th century. Early European explorers noted seeps of oil and natural gas in western Pennsylvania and New York. Interest grew substantially in the mid-1850s as scientists reported on the potential to manufacture kerosene from crude oil, if a sufficiently large oil supply could be found.

Salt was a valuable commodity, and an industry developed near salt springs in the Ohio River Valley, producing salt by evaporating brine from the springs. Wells were sunk at the salt springs to increase the supply of brine for evaporation. Some of the wells were hand-dug, but salt producers also learned to drill wells by percussion (cable tool) methods. In a number of locations in western Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, oil and natural gas came up the wells along with the brine. The oil was mostly a nuisance, but some salt producers saved it and sold it as illuminating oil or medicine. In some locations, enough natural gas was produced to be used as fuel for the salt evaporating pans.[1] Early salt brine wells that produced byproduct oil included the Thorla-McKee Well of Ohio in 1814, a well near Burkesville, Kentucky in 1828,[2] and wells at Burning Springs, West Virginia by 1836.

The US natural gas industry started in 1821 at Fredonia, Chautauqua County, New York, when William Hart dug a well to a depth of 27 feet (8.2 m) into gas-bearing shale, then drilled a borehole 43 feet (13 m) further, and piped the natural gas to a nearby inn where it was burned for illumination. Soon many gas wells were drilled in the area, and the gas-lit streets of Fredonia became a tourist attraction.

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