Oil at Your Service—Maybe!
WELL, there I was, relaxing, a droplet of oil, minding my own business. I had slumbered in peaceful coexistence with millions of my neighbor droplets for countless years. Then, suddenly, we were awakened by the unearthly shriek of steel grating against the walls of our home. This invader of privacy from another world turned out to be a drill bit, and it changed our life-style overnight.
How did I, an insignificant droplet of oil, become so renowned? My story goes back to the early 1960’s. At that time, oil exploration was being conducted on the North Slope of Alaska. Over the years, oil companies spent millions of dollars in search of their elusive target—a commercial oil field. Finally, their efforts were rewarded. In 1968 the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field was discovered.
My ancestral home was invaded. Can you imagine the dread I felt as I was forced to give up my warm, comfortable home and was pushed up an alien steel pipe to a world I knew nothing about?
My Home Is Not a Pool
Perhaps I should spend a minute describing to you the home I was now leaving. First off, it was located 8,500 feet [2,600 m] below sea level. What privacy! Also, the temperature was about 200 degrees Fahrenheit [90° C.]—just cozy for our molecular structure. Many describe my home as a pool. This might erroneously imply that I live in a large cavern filled with oil. Not so. My habitat is called an oil pool, but it is actually a sand or gravel bed that has filled up with oil and gas. If this is difficult to grasp, imagine a container filled with sand. You can still add water to it—up to 25 percent of the container’s volume—without its running over.
But let me get back to the time I was being whisked away to a new life. I traveled up the pipe so quickly because of the tremendous pressure in the oil reservoir. This was initially measured at over 4,000 pounds per square inch [280 kg/sq cm] and therefore propelled me upward at high speed.
It was the beginning of a new world for me. Some said that I would be very popular as fuel. Others felt that I would be useful in a thousand other ways—for households and industry. Where would I end up? I was apprehensive. At least I was not alone. More wells were drilled to get more of my companion droplets out of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
Now, this is an expensive and potentially dangerous job. Many times, drilling rigs will penetrate a highly pressurized formation, and if you don’t harness us, we can blow out and cause a tremendous explosion and much damage to the tundra and the wildlife. But I was not guilty of this. I ended up journeying along the pipeline to Valdez, en route to my destiny of serving you.
Incidentally, the pipeline carrying me there is above the tundra to prevent thawing of the permafrost. On the North Slope this permafrost averages 2,000 feet [600 m] in thickness. It is 30 percent frozen water, so if the warm oil flowed underground, the permafrost would thaw, and our pipeline would easily buckle and rupture. Can you imagine the damage? What havoc thousands of gallons of spilled crude oil would wreak on the fragile tundra!
From Valdez my itinerary called for traveling by supertanker to an oil refinery far away. There I am to begin a new life. The gas and water are to be separated to go to another destination. ‘Gas,’ you say? ‘I thought we were talking about oil.’ Well, most people do not realize that where I lived, gas is always in the neighborhood. Actually, most of my makeup is gas. As a matter of fact, if they allowed me to be set free as soon as I arrived on the surface of the earth, I would expand more than one hundred times—what a noise I would make then!
Anyway, at the refinery I am scheduled to undergo a transformation. I am to be broken down into fractions, or parts, a process called fractional distillation. The crude oil is heated to a vapor and allowed to rise through a large tower. This causes different fractions to condense at certain levels and to be drawn off through valves. You might know that almost half of me is to become gasoline, and when that happens, I will be at your service when you drive up to a pump and say, “Fill her up.”
But I could also end up in many other things. We droplets may not look like much at first, but look around your room. That chair may be made of plastics, vinyl, synthetic rubber. That beautiful kitchen table may have an oil-based veneer. Your floor covering may well be a result of feedstock from a chemical plant that thrives on oil products—a thousand ways to serve you!
No Longer ‘At Your Service’
But for me, none of that is to be. I start my journey from Valdez to a refinery via a supertanker named Exxon Valdez. Shortly after midnight there is a grating of metal against rock—far more frightening than when the steel bit invaded my home on the North Slope! Soon my holding tank is ripped open on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. I am gushed out into those waters, along with 11,000,000 gallons [42,000,000 L] of my traveling companions. I have become part of a terrible pollution, part of the biggest oil spill ever in North America!
So I will never help fill your tank at a service station. I will not become those plastic plates on your table, or part of your television set, or your favorite cosmetic cream, or the clothes you wear, or the perfume you use for that tantalizing fragrance. I will never get to present myself to you to be at your service, as I set out to do. No maybe about any of that now!
Instead, I end up polluting Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. I shared in marring the beauty of hundreds of miles of coastline. I share in the death of thousands of birds and animals. I jeopardize the livelihood of scores of fishermen. Far better for me to have remained a droplet of oil on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay, relaxing and minding my own business in the cozy warmth of my home 8,500 feet [2,600 m] below sea level.