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The black Death: the petroleum and its "gifts"

Updated on May 28, 2010

Everyone knows what happened recently in the Gulf of Mexico and everyone is aware of the tremendous environmental impact of the disaster that happened there. Many incidents have occurred in the production, transportation and transformation of petroleum in the refineries, and they will occur again in the future, I fear, because it is the very product that is searched for and utilized on a global scale, that is dangerous both for its chemical composition and for the consequences it has on the Earth. That is to say that petroleum, and the petroleum products, are dangerous for environment and human life not only when occurs a tragedy such as that of the Gulf or that, happened in Alaska many years ago, but that they are a threat to life at each stage of their utilization, from the exploration to the petrochemical industry. There is a tremendous amount of valuable information available on the environmental impact of petroleum operations and on ways to minimize that impact; however this information is scattered among thousands of books, reports and papers, making it difficult to obtain specific informations. With this hub I have made an effort to gather materials, understandable to an audience of "non-experts", to enlight the many consequences that petroleum has on the world we live in and on our very lives.

The crude oil: nature and use

Oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, which are molecules that contain only carbon and hydrogen; in an oil refinery the various fractions of petroleum are separated by distillation- the lightest liquid fraction is used for gasoline, the heaviest for lubricating oil. Not all compounds contained in crude oil are hydrocarbons, there are present also as impurities, small quantities of sulfur, nitrogen and metals and organic chloride compounds are also present in crude oil, but, although all crude oil contain the said composition, rarely are there two crude oils with the same characteristics.
Late in the 19th century came the invention of the internal combustion engine with its requirement for energy derived from crude oil. This, one can say, sparked the second industrial revolution, with the establishment of the industrial scene of today and its continuing development. The petroleum products from the crude oil used initially for the energy required by the internal combustion engine, have mushroomed to become the basis and source of some of our chemical and pharmaceutical products. The development of the crude oil refining industry and the internal combustion engine have so influeneced each other during the 20th century. The industrial development and societal practices of the twentieth century have had and still have a disturbing impact on the environment of the Earth. The inadequate use of natural resources and improper disposal of energy by-products poses adverse impact not only on the air, water and land, but increasingly on the entire ecosystem. The causes of the problems may be diverse and numerous, but the hydrocarbon fuel cycle may be the most apparent on a global basis. It creates in particular three major forms of environmental problems: air pollution, acid rain and more important, global warming. The environmentals problems created by the production and consumption of fossil fuels in general and petroleum in particular are of truly global dimensions.
Environmental problems start right away with exploration activities such as scismic surveys and geological prospecting, albeit the environmental interference and disturbance at this stage are limited. Secondly, it is interesting to observe that, in the upstream operations, environmental problems and their impacts tend to increase and build up along with the project's progress, from the initial visibility and acoustic issues at the exploration phase, accidental spills and blow-out at the development stage, and to operational discharge and emissions such as gas flaring during the production period. Environmental effects tend to culminate when the project reaches its production stage and then begin to decrease towards the abandonement stage. Thirdly, oil and gas exploration and exploitation also have social impacts on the culture and heritage of the operating localities. Fourth, petroleum environmental problems do not end with energy consumption, rather it goes much further beyond the petroleum energy cycle, as evidenced by the phenomen of global warming.

Crude Impact: Oil, The Earth and Humanity

The petroleum and the general pollution

Exploration for and production of petroleum have caused major detrimental impacts to soils, surface and ground waters and the local ecosystems. While petroleum contaminated soils emerged as a major environmental issue in the early 1980s, soil has had the potential for contamination by petroleum products since the countries began large-scale production, transportation, storage and use of petroleum products. Drilling, completion and workover trucks, rigs and equipment such as pumps typically run off of diesel-powered or gasoline engines. The exhaust fumes from gasoline and diesel fuels can produce emissions can be noticeable to people living downwind.
If one also considers the health hazards of some of the constituents of petroleum products and that the cleanup costs can amount to well over a million dollars per incident, one can appreciate the magnitude of the social and economic problems posed by petroleum contaminated soils. These impacts arise primarily from the improper disposal of large volumes of saline water produced with oil and gas, from accidental hydrocarbon and produced water releases, and from abandoned oil wells that were not correctly sealed. It is important to understand the long-term and short-term effects of produced water and hydrocarbon releases from the sites in order to develop risk-based remediation plans.

Historically, oil and gas exploration and production of petroleum have represented a significant source of spills, much of it so goes to the sea during maritime transportation and carried as effluent from offshore rigs, production platforms and city sewage. Petroleum release in marine waters occurs from four major sources that are: natural seeps; releases that occur during the extraction of petroleum; transportation of petroleum products (which include pipeline, spills, tank, vessel spills, operation discharges from cargo washing); consumption of petroleum products (which include urban runoff, polluted rivers and discharges from commercial and recreational marine vessels). Natural seeps contribute the highest amount of petroleum to the marine environment, the last three include all significant sources of anthropogenic petroleum pollution: these releases can pose significant risks to the sensitive coastal environments, where they most often occur. The primary measure of the environmental impact of petroleum wastes is their toxicity to exposed organisms. The environmental impact of hydrocarbons in water varies considerably: chronic exposure of entire ecosystem to hydrocarbons, whose toxicity is relatively high, either from natural seeps or from petroleum facilities have shown no long- term impact; the ecosystems have all recovered when the source of hydrocarbons was removed. No evidence of irrevocable damage to marine resources on a broad oceanic scale has been obscerved; although there are short-term impacts from major spills, the marine resources can and do recover, the mighty of the sea is far greater than that of human pollution.
The spread of petroleum increased environmental pollution- in land, sea and air- as production and distribution surpassed progress in containing oil spills during drilling and production in the oil and gas fields and during surface transportation- to stabilizing plants (known as central tank farms), to refineries through trunk lines, and ultimately to every nook and corner of the world for bulk and consumer distribution. In areas that depend on ground and surface water sources for their drinking water supply, and especially in area with shallow aquifer, leaking UST (underground storage tanks) present a serious threat. When tanks or other sources containing petroleum leak, the products they release can contaminate nearby surface and ground water. Serious safety problems can also arise if gasoline accumulates in sewer lines and other confined spaces, allowing vapors to spread into homes: these vapours are poisonous and present a fire or explosion hazard.
There is also the practice of burning gas that is deemed uneconomical to collect and sell. Flaring is also used to burn gases that would otherwise present a safety problem. It is common to flare natural gas that contains hydrogen sulfide (i.e., sour gas), in order to convert the highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas into less toxic compounds. Flares emit a host of air pollutants, depending on the chemical composition of the gas being burned and the efficiency and temperature of the flare. Flaring results in hydrogen sulfide emissions if hydrogen sulfide is present in large enough amounts in the natural gas. There may also be additional by-products formed if some of the chemicals used during the drilling or hydraulic fracturing process are converted to a gaseous form and are burned along with the natural gas. It has been estimated that the following hazardous air pollutants may be released from natural gas flares: benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, including naphthalene), acetaldehyde, acrolein, propylene, toluene, xylenes, ethyl benzene and hexane. Researchers in Canada have measured more than 60 air pollutants downwind of natural gas flares...

Offshore Drilling is Dangerous Even Without Oil Spills

Wastes of the petroleum and the air pollution

The upstream petroleum industry, which conducts all exploration and production activities, provides petroleum products that are used for transportation fuels, electrical power generation, space heating, medicine and petrochemicals. But these activities can impact the environment and the greatest impact arises from the release of wastes into the environment in concentrations that are not naturally found. These wastes include hydrocarbons, solids contaminated with hydrocarbons, water contaminated with a variety of dissolved and suspended solids, and a wide variety of chemicals.
Wastes are generated from a variety of activities associated with petroleum production. These wastes fall into the general categories of produced water, drilling wastes and associated wastes. For example, produced water accounts for about 98% of the total waste stream in the United States and so the total volume of produced water is roughly 21 billions barrels per year! Produced water virtually always contains impurities, and if present in sufficient concentrations, these impurities can adversely impact the environment. These impurities include dissolved solids (primarily salt and heavy metals), suspended and dissolved organic materials, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide (very toxic elements), and have a deficiency of oxygen; produced water may also contain low levels of naturally occuring radioactive materials. In addition to naturally occurring impurities, chemical additives like coagulants, corrosion inhibitors, emulsion breakers, biocides, dispersants, paraffin control agents and scale inibitors are often added to alter the chemistry of produced water. Water produced from waterflood projects may also contain acids, oxygen scavengers, surfactants and scale dissolvers that were initially injected into the formation.
Associated wastes include the sludges and solids that collect in surface equipment and tanks bottoms, pits wastes, water softener wastes, scrubber wastes, wastes from dehydration and sweetening of natural gas and contaminated soil from accidental spills and releases. Another waste stream associated with the petroleum industry is air emissions. These emissions arise primarily from the operation of internal combustion engines. Since only about 6% of petroleum is used as noncombustion chemicals, the remaining 94% ends as airborne pollution: perhaps airborne pollution has overshadowed all other forms of petroleum pollutions. Other emissions arise from the operations of boilers, steam generators, natural gas dehydrators and separators. Fugitive emissions from leaking valves and fittings can also release unacceptable quantities of volatile pollutants. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in exhaust from motor vehicles and other gasoline and diesel engines. A long list of other air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, BTEX, formaldehyde and metals are also contained in diesel fuel combustion products.
The acid rain that has received the most attention is caused mainly by refineries, which burn heavy hydrocarbons such as fuel oils. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides released from the burning of fossil fuels are routed high into the air and are carried by winds to areas remote from the actual source. When winds blow the acid chemicals into areas where there is wet weather, the acids become part of the rain, snow or fog. In areas where the weather is dry, the acid chemicals may fall to Earth in gases or dusts. Lakes and streams are normally slightly acid, but acid rains can make them very acid; very acid conditions moreover damage plant and animal life. And again, acid air pollution has been linked to breathing and lung problems in children and in people who have asthma. Even healthy people can have their lungs damaged by acid air polluttants, because acid air pollution can eat away stone buidings and statues!

The petrochemical industry and the health threat

The final processing stage for the crude oil is the refinery and petrochemical plants, where the maximum pollution occurs- most notably in the form of atmospheric emissions that can be felt from miles away due to the odor of airborne chemical species, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur. Various production chains that are based on the conversion of hydrocarbons into chemical products make up what is known as the petrochemical industry. The petrochemical industry has made possible the development of many products that today are considered normal and indispensable, so this belief that these oil-derived products are what assure an acceptable quality of life make it seem impossible to live without them...and how did lived men in the past, when these products weren't still invented?! The usage of fossil fuel has made the world a “fossil dependent” world. Petroleum also made us a civilization dependent on oil and on the transnationals that control oil exploitation and the petrochemical industry.
The huge variety of end products of the petrochemical industry can be finally classified into five main groups: plastics, synthetic fibers, synthetic rubber, detergents and nitrogen fertilizers. Moreover, the petrochemical industry has also created a great variety of agro-toxins (herbicides, fungicides etc.) which generate a large quantity of contaminants. In fact the product themselves- as opposed to natural products- are not biodegradable; in addition, the secondary products involved in the production of the agro-toxins create contaminant byproducts as well. The local populations that live with the area of influence of petrochemicals plants face serious health problems, due to the presence of contaminats generated by the industry.
There is a very terrible thing that effect the manufacture of fuels and the petrochemical industry, that is the emission of the hazardous air pollutants. The hazardous ones have been shown statistically to cause major health disorders such as cancer, neurological damage, respiratory irritation and reproducive disorders. In general these pollutants are believed to have no threshold and are harmful even in small doses or concentrations and there are 189 hazardous air pollutants, among which benzene, which are formed by combustion of motive fuel such as gasoline. The emission of lead from gasoline engines, as example, have been known to be toxic for several decays, because it affects kidneys, liver and other organs, and leads to neurological impairment, learning deficits and behavioural disorders.

I still wonder if all this is truly necessary for an acceptable quality of life: to me, it seems the contrary...

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Submit a Comment

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks to you, Wanda! It is quite probable that your brother in law suffers from an excessive exposition to such harmful substances as gasoline and benzene, that are highly toxic and provoke in particular many damages to the kidneys! I hope he will recover soon his health, although the work he does is very dangerous for his organism...

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    A few years ago my brother in law began a business in Nth Queensland Australia. Importing heavy vehicle tires from China and distributing to the north of the country. He built a huge new facility and showroom/office area.

    Six months ago he attended specialists who have been trying to discover an elusive problem he's been having with his kidneys. He's had two or more biopsies and numerous trial medicines.

    Two days ago his doctors said they were going to look into the possibility of it being an allergic reaction to something.

    We all began looking, and have passed on the information obtained in this article for consideration. THANKS GUYS!!!

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    ok KFlippin: BP managers were the main responsible, and, as in any crime, they had a lot of helps and allies in committing their crime.

    What I tried to highlight with this hub is the fact that this tragedy wasn't necessary to cause great damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its environment. Moreover, these tragedies will continue to happen if the only causes guiding the minds of powerful men are only greed and personal interest!

  • KFlippin profile image


    8 years ago from Amazon

    Who other than BP were responsible? How about the regulatory system of the Dept. of the Interior failing to follow up on known safety issues?

    How about the misguided treehugging environmentalists who successfully managed to stop safer close to shore and on shore/land drilling in areas with known massive reserves of oil? But said okey-doke to risking our seas far off shore instead - out of sight, out of mind - NOT.

    A pebble of action makes a ripple, and that treehugger tossed pebble made a ripple that is now destroying the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Well Angel, I thank you for your rational comments. I agree: there are pros and cons in everything, symbol of justice is indeed a scales. Ok, in my point of view the cons are far greater that any possible advantages, in this matter. The men is dependant on plastic and petrochemicals products only because has been convinced that this was the only way to a better life. I don't suggest a return to the "forest lifestyle", the men have always lived in cities for ages, in antiquity they lived up to the age of eighty and I suspect they had a happier and healthier life than ours. I suggest simply to begin from small change in habits and customs and to return slowly to the most ancient lifestyle, which does not of course include the oil...yes, natural spills can occur and has always occurred, but it is the plan of the earth, not ours- and I trust much more nature than the human judgment: men often is not able to foresee the bad effects of his actions, and the history of chemistry is a very good proof of this my statement!

    If I think that "good old American working men" are died just for the sake of profit of some rich industrial, I'm greatly enraged! For the oil spill in the waters of the Gulf...well, who other than BP managers were responsible for the environmental disasters and the very death of their own employees?!

    I agree totally with you when you said that is only- and always- a mere matter of interests and money...and this is, in my opinion, the most shameful and inutile thing, concerning the whole oil industry.

  • angel115707 profile image

    Angel Ward 

    8 years ago from Galveston, TX

    Varenya, there are pros and cons to everything in balance, to say Outdoorsguy,not about hysteria but is wrong about the list he provided as being necessary, I also have to remind people that all the plastic you use (other than labeled plant based which is proven to increase world hunger by increasing the cost of corn and decreasing the amounts served to starving third world countries) in your hospitals, so you cannot go to the ER and expect any one to save your life or even give you a shot, that shot comes in a plastic shot...IV's for saving lives..PLASTIC PLASTIC I am not saying I love this oil problem but it is clear we are dependent on it, unless you want to go live in the trees and eat berries and die of natural causes like ticks, fleas etc...because you can't even protect yourself from those without oil....than well then, we have a problem...Not to mention no one talks about the ocean naturally creating "oil spills" all the time, releasing and bursting oil below the surface on a regular basis because it is heavy with deposits, but I do agree there are more natural ways, it is a whole society that will change, and thankfully people are working to make progress, and I am glad you are too.

    One thing I am mad about is this oil spill could be easily cleaned faster with microbes, they eat the oil, then die off...its a natural way to clean it, but considering who owns the chemicals they are using, its all about politics and money...I am pretty ticked off at the way they are handling it, after all I do live on the coast.

    Good post, but don't forget your hard working oilmen who risk their lives, to save yours, 11 men died on that rig, to provide heat in the winter for the elderly, and to save lives in hospitals, those men had names, families...respect that ok don't have to like the big wigs in the industry, just good old American working men. :)

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    There is no need to be "hysterical" to get to my conclusions; simply, you must read better the article and tell me if you can deny the tremendous effects that petroleum and petrochemical industry have on the Earth.

    I am not surprised at all by your long list of "useful" things that come from the wondrous oil...I'm far more surprised by the evident fact that you consider all these things as really "necessary" and, moreover, that you ignore that many of them can be produced without making the minimal damage to the environment (perfumes, boats, drinking cups and so on...are you aware that they exist long before the use of petroleum???)

    Land, air, sun, wind, water, fire, vegetation and cereals: man needs really only these things, or you believe that those that knew not the oil and its refinement were so unhappy? All history of humanity 'till the 19th century?!

    There is only one thing for which the oil industry is really necessary: to realize big profits!

  • outdoorsguy profile image


    8 years ago from Tenn

    how about for once, we have some Enviromental talk with out the scary overblown titles, and hysterical word plays. As Much as I agree the industry needs to improve its record. I cant and wont follow wild enviromental ideas.

    heres a small list of the things. the " blackDeath" brings you.

    Clothing Ink

    Heart Valves





    Transparent tape


    Vacuum bottles



    Rubbing Alcohol


    Epoxy paint

    Oil filters


    Hearing Aids

    Car sound insulation


    Motorcycle helmets


    Shower doors


    Refrigerator linings

    Electrical tape

    Safety glass


    Salad bowl

    Rubber cement

    Nylon rope

    Ice buckets


    Hair coloring

    Toilet seats

    Denture adhesive


    Movie film

    Fishing boots


    Water pipes

    Car enamel

    Shower curtains

    Credit cards


    Golf balls




    Fishing rods


    Plastic wood

    Soft contact lenses

    Trash bags

    Hand lotion


    Shaving cream


    Paint brushes


    Fan belts


    Paint Rollers



    Model cars

    Floor wax

    Sports car bodies


    Dishwashing liquids

    Unbreakable dishes





    Hair curlers


    Ice cube trays

    Electric blankets

    Tennis rackets

    Drinking cups

    House paint

    Rollerskates wheels

    Guitar strings



    Ice chests

    Life jackets

    TV cabinets

    Car battery cases

    Insect repellent


    Typewriter ribbons

    Cold cream


    Plywood adhesive



    Artificial turf

    Artificial Limbs




    Beach Umbrellas

    Ballpoint pens


    Nail polish

    Golf bags


    Tape recorders


    Vitamin capsules






    Fishing lures


    Shoe polish

    Petroleum jelly

    Faucet washers

    Food preservatives




    LP records



    there is not one aspect of your life that oil doesnt provide for. so before you jump on the lets walk every where think about what you actually get from oil.


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