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Peak Oil in Pennsylvania

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The first commercial oil well was completed in Pennsylvania in 1859 under the supervision of Colonel Edwin Drake. Williamson and Daum’s The American Petroleum Industry: The age of illumination, 1859-1899, p. 75 have this colorful description of how Drake earned his colonel’s eagle:

Following [Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company President James] Townsend’s instructions literally, Drake’s first act on arriving in Titusville [PA] brought him what was probably the cheapest, if not the most spurious, colonelcy ever acquired outside the state of Kentucky. Alert to the promotional value of a little showmanship to impress the local citizenry, Townsend had mailed the legal documents ahead to “Colonel” E.L. Drake in care of Brewer, Watson & Company… When Drake called for his mail, he found the townsfolk already interested in and receptive to the great man affairs in their midst, and himself adorned with a new title that would remain with him for life.

Aided by more than a little luck, the colonel did strike oil, and the boom was on. For two decades the state of Pennsylvania was to be the world’s main producer of crude oil. Although production rates from the initial wells on Oil Creek dropped off quickly as the oil was taken out, these were more than replaced by other sources within the state. For example, in 1865, Pithole City, PA became a phenomenal boom town, accounting for a third of the 2.5 million barrels produced in the world that year, only to turn into a ghost town as production rates fell substantially by 1868.

Peak Oil in Pennsylvania

Source: The Oil Well Driller, Charles Whiteshot (1905)

Pennsylvanian production continued to increase as ever-more-productive new fields within the state were developed, reaching almost 32 million barrels in 1891. But I was interested to learn that, despite amazing improvements in technology since the nineteenth century, that was the highest annual production rate that Pennsylvania would ever achieve.

Peak Oil in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania crude oil production, 1859-1990, in millions of barrels per year. Source: Michael Caplinger (1997)

Here’s an update to the above graph with more recent data. The price increases of the 1970s and 2000s were sufficient to stimulate some increases in Pennsylvanian production. But note that the two graphs here are drawn on the same scale– we’re still under 4 million barrels per year, less than 1/8 of what the sturdy Pennsylvanians of 1891 were able to accomplish. And in 1891, by the way, oil sold for 67 cents a barrel, which corresponds to about $16 in 2009 dollars.

Peak Oil in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania crude oil production, 1981-2009, in millions of barrels per year. Data source: EIA


One Comment on "Peak Oil in Pennsylvania"

  1. DMyers on Mon, 29th Nov 2010 8:23 am 

    It’s good to be reminded of these microcosms of peak oil, which the peak oil proposition takes into account, in a cumulative sense. There you have it, the rise and fall in very short order, right before your eyes. It happened. It is not a theoretical situation, nor is it an allegory.

    Another very enlightening example on the same order is the rise and fall of natural gas in northeastern Indiana. I believe the gas fields of Indiana were related to the oil fields in Pennsylvania, part of the Trenton Field.

    What happened is that natural gas was a boom in Indiana in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It seemed as though this gas would be infinite. The state of Indiana actually scouted for industry to move to Indiana by offering a free supply of natural gas. Allegedly there were numerous instances of people simply tapping into a natural gas well in their front yards and just letting it burn like an eternal flame.

    As with the Penn. oil peak, the gas also peaked in Indiana, and I believe it had been mostly exhausted in about thirty years (circa 1890-1920). It is interesting to see how this boom altered economic and governmental activity. There were plans on the board to move the state capital from Indianapolis to an area more central to the gas boom, which area would have lain to the northeast of Indy. Small cities sprouted in that region, and an expanded infrastructure for the anticipated hyper-growth from future natural gas was put in place.

    This has no doubt happened in many other locations. If ever “the handwriting is on the wall” metaphor had an application, it is here. There may be arguments about whether we can reasonably generalize these smaller instances to larger instances. If it is all the same stuff, formed in the same way but in different quantities only, I see no reason why the peak phenomenon would not act in exactly the same way, adjusted in time by quantity.

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