When we think of crude oil we probably don’t think of much unless we are somehow connected to a science or oil career. Our image of pumping oil from the ground or from the ocean floor probably involves some sort of pipe with black sludge flowing out of it. What Joel Achenbach explains in his book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is that the oil, and the process of pumping that oil, is far more complex than what we imagine. To help us understand what happened during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, he spends time detailing what exactly comes out of the ground when pumping oil, and what must be sent back into the ground to replace what comes up. We don’t just pull up oil as we drill, but we get gas, water, sand, and more, and the men and women working on the oil rigs must account for everything that comes through the pipe.
When it comes to the crude oil itself, Achenbach writes about what actually composes the sludge. “There is no single hydrocarbon molecule named “oil.” There is, however, benzene, toluene, m-Xylene, n-heptylbenzene, indene, indan, naphthalene, tetralin, biphenyl, acenaphthylene, flourene, pyrene, chrysene, benzopyrene, pentacene – these just being a partial list of typical aromatic hydrocarbons found in crude oil. There are also hydrocarbon cases: predominantly methane, but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and heptane, and there are other gases mixed in with the hydrocarbons—gases that have more than just hydrogen sulfide, and helium. One also finds traces of phosphorus, iron, nickel, and vanadium.”
He details the contents of the crude oil to show that what we pump from the ground is incredibly varied, and hard to predict because of the wide array of compounds often contained. When BP and scientists around the world raced to close the well in the Gulf of Mexico gushing oil into the ocean, they had to consider the nature of the oil. Understanding what is in the substance helps us know how it will react to specific situations and how it will behave under different conditions. It also helped us to better understand what the oil would do when it diffused into the ocean.
I like the quote above about the oil because it serves to show how large of a disconnect exists in our world between insiders and outsiders when it comes to things like science, technology, and industry. Achenbach’s book is full of examples of the complex process and nature of drilling for oil that the general population is not aware of. I spend a lot of time consuming science podcast and blogs, but even then I have only a superficial understanding of any scientific field. Our experts know increasingly more about how our world operates, but that knowledge is increasingly hidden from the general public who is too busy, too stressed, and too preoccupied to learn and engage in scientific studies that use complex language and focus on seemingly obscure subjects. What we must demand as a population is better science communication to help us understand how our engineered world operates. We must find time to focus on understanding at least part of the complex world around us, if for no reason other than to appreciate the work of science. It may never help me to know that there are so many varieties of contents in crude oil, but it may help me better understand the science that goes into refining oil, and it may help me accept the prices that I pay when I fuel up my car.