A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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In the fall of 1973 one piece of the industrial infrastructure emerged from the unnoticed background of American life and became a public obsession. The gas pumps had run dry. Any filling station with fuel to sell had a long queue of cars snaking around the block. Prices soared. Getting the tank filled—a chore that had been so routine it slipped beneath the level of conscious attention—was suddenly a challenge that called for strategy and guile, not to mention getting up before dawn.

The gasoline shortage lasted only a few months, but it made a strong impression on those who lived through it. For a while, American automobiles became smaller, lighter, and less thirsty. A pipeline from the North Slope oil fields across Alaska was quickly approved and built. A 55-mile-per-hour national speed limit was enacted as a fuel-saving measure and ruled the roads for more than 20 years.

The causes of the 1973 oil crisis were more political and economic than technological, but the event nonetheless prompted much sober thought about life in a world of finite resources. The oil was not running out in 1973, and 30 years later we are still pumping it out of the ground at a furious pace, but the idea that it will not last forever is now taken seriously—even by some of the oil companies. (Though evidently not by the owners of sport utility vehicles.) This chapter looks at the infrastructure of the oil industry, from the well through the refinery to the filling station. Finally, there is a section on the natural gas industry, which has a rather different culture.

The Natural History of an Oil Well

The drilling rig is the universal emblem of the oil industry: a tapered steel derrick, usually depicted with a gusher shooting up through the middle of it. Your chances of ever seeing a gusher are nil. Even to see a drilling rig, you need to be in the right place at the right time. In the life cycle of an oil well, drilling is a relatively brief phase. It lasts a few months, and then the derrick is broken down and hauled away. You’re much more likely to happen upon a well in the production stage, which can last for decades. Nevertheless, drilling is where it all begins, and it’s certainly the adventurous side of the oil business, the world of wildcatters and roughnecks.

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