Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on May 25, 2011

Bookmark and Share

How much energy is there in a barrel of oil?

Q: With oil prices around $100 a barrel and gasoline at $4 a gallon, is it really worth that much? How much energy is in a barrel of oil anyhow?

A: First, oil barrels are not the same size as the 55-gallon drums that are in common use today. An oil barrel is only about 75 percent as large at 42 gallons. Although the barrel is used as the unit of measure, actual barrels are no longer used to ship crude oil. The history of the barrel dates to the early days of oil production in Pennsylvania oil fields in the 1860s. There was no standard container, so oil producers used whatever containers were commonly available. According to the Oil Region Alliance of Business Industry & Tourism in Venango County, the 40-gallon whiskey barrel was readily available and most commonly used. The 42-gallon barrel became standard by 1872, the two extra gallons were apparently added to ensure that customers would get at least 40 gallons. It seems there was distrust of the oil industry from the beginning.


Although different grades of crude vary, the average energy of a 42-gallon barrel of oil is 5.8 million Btu, or British thermal units. By definition, one Btu of energy will raise 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit, so about 75 Btu are needed to boil a cup of water to make your morning coffee or tea.

The 5.8 million Btu figure was established by the IRS for energy tax purposes and is called a Barrel of Oil Equivalent, or BOE. One barrel of oil has the same energy content as 5,800 cubic feet of natural gas. A cubic foot of natural gas contains about 1,000 Btu. For electricity, 1 barrel is 1,700 kilowatt hours.

So, is oil really worth $100 a barrel? Another way of looking at it is to compare oil to a horse. A horse laboring a standard 40-hour work week (eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year) would have to labor for more than one year to produce the energy in a barrel of oil. Do you think a horse could be fed and maintained for a year for $100? Not likely.

Human labor is even worse. A fit human adult can sustain about one-tenth of a horsepower, so a human would have to labor more than 10 years to equal a barrel of oil.

Oil and oil products have the advantages of being easily combustible with high energy content. Additionally, oil is widely available and is easily transported through ocean tankers, tank trucks and pipelines. Gasoline and diesel fuel are easily and safely dispensed into our vehicles, and heating oil is similarly delivered to our homes.

The Morning Call

4 Comments on "How much energy is there in a barrel of oil?"

  1. Cabra1080 on Wed, 25th May 2011 11:50 pm 

    Wow! So when oil gets really scarce and hyper-expensive or not available at any cost it is literally going to be a royal PITA to get things done. Not looking forward to that!

    There are a lot of things we are doing with solar that look promising but solar just doesn’t have the ‘umph’ that oil has. Oil has this magnificent energy density not matched by anything else in easy to use, safe, liquid form. We will really miss it!

  2. armageddon51 on Thu, 26th May 2011 4:47 am 

    On a bright side, if oil become scarce that will be the end of unemployment ! Everyone will be back to work to make up for that lost energy…

  3. Rick M on Thu, 26th May 2011 8:15 am 

    Your logic makes perfect sense (we will all have to work harder as we have fewer “energy slaves”).

    But think back to the Great Depression: the fact that there was plenty of work which needed doing did not provide the destitute with employment.

    What seems much more likely is that we may have a sort of social paralysis/dysfunction. We have very large urban populations which are utterly dependent on economic exchange for necessities of life (water, food, shelter, heat, mobility, etc.).

    Should anything cause those economic systems to falter and confidence to be lost in currencies, financial & public institutions, etc, then we will have great difficulty maintaining social order, which is a prerequisite for almost everything that we have come to expect.

  4. sunweb on Thu, 26th May 2011 6:26 pm 

    the first two paragraphs:
    We will go kicking and screaming down the path to the new Middle Ages as fossil fuels desert us. With the decline of available energy, those of most of us who have sat at the top of the energy pyramid will become the new peasants. With the popular view of the Middle Ages as a brutal and dirty time filled with famine and disease and at the mercy of armed overlords. We cringe at the thought.

    With great sadness, we must recognize the direct connection between present day population levels and the use of fossil fuels in food production, medical procedures, medicines and hygiene. With the fall in fossil fuel availability there will be a reduction in population. Population soared with the industrial revolution and the development of industrial, fossil fuel based agriculture. It cannot be sustained.
    From: The New Middle Ages

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *