The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oil and oil spills have long gone hand in hand

New technology has facilitated the transportation of oil, but spills remain a risk.

In this photo taken by a drone, cleanup continues in the area where the ruptured Keystone pipeline dumped oil into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, Dec. 9, 2022. (DroneBase via AP) (AP)
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The recent Keystone Pipeline malfunction in Washington County, Kansas, has spilled over 14,000 barrels of oil into the water of Mill Creek in the northern part of the state. The cause of the malfunction is still being investigated, but images of blackened farmland sloping into the creek at the spill site evince the scale of the environmental impact.

The oil spill offers a devastating view into the reality of our modern oil infrastructure, but it is only the latest in a long line of modern environmental disasters caused by the industry. While cleanup continues on the largest oil spill in the Keystone Pipeline’s history, the spill has parallels that date back to the beginning of an industry mired by disaster. In fact, oil spills of this size are hardly new and the history of the early oil industry reveals that resistance to creating safer, more effective methods of transporting oil has unfortunately been the norm for well over a century. While rapid technological advancements led to the creation of pipelines, lack of ingenuity has long since left us cleaning up the messes early oilmen hoped to avoid.

In the mid-19th century, the Oil Creek Valley in northwest Pennsylvania was a sparsely populated collection of small villages separated by hilly terrain. While lumber mills initially dominated the local economy, that changed when Edwin Drake’s well struck oil along Oil Creek in August 1859, ultimately drawing thousands to the area. Drake had been sent to the area the year before by the recently created Seneca Oil Company in the hopes of producing oil in quantities sufficient to market it as a new illuminant.

By the end of 1860, over 400,000 barrels of oil had been extracted from the low-lying lands on the banks of Oil Creek. Getting the oil out of the ground was one thing but getting it to market proved to be another matter entirely. Wagons carrying around seven barrels each lined the newly created trails throughout the wooded hills, often sinking into the knee-deep mud causing massive delays and soaring shipping costs.

And so, some early oilmen, many of whom had worked in the local lumber industry before the boom, turned to their old methods of transporting lumber along Oil Creek: the pond freshet.

Pond freshets created a rise in water level via a series of dams along the creek. Rafts loaded with up to 700 barrels of oil would then be floated to the mouth of Oil Creek where steamships and other large vessels waited to collect the barrels for shipment to Pittsburgh and other oil-refining centers. While a pond freshet could safely transport lumber to the Allegheny, the same could not be said of oil barrels, however.

Rough passage in many areas along Oil Creek led to numerous disasters that saw thousands of barrels of oil spill into the creek. Inexperienced raftsmen would release their boats too early and run aground, only to be dislodged by the steady flow of water rushing downstream. The contaminated water would not only darken the local waterway, but it also polluted the Allegheny River for miles below. Out of control rafts destroyed bridges recently constructed to transport oil by wagon, disrupting oil shipments as well as local transportation along roadways.

For example, on June 26, 1862, the Titusville Gazette and Oil Creek Reporter described a shipment of oil using a pond freshet that had taken place the week before. A mistake in the release of water from one of the dams along the creek led to a low water level near the mouth of the creek. The first rafts in line ran aground and awaited their fate from those following behind. The result was a chaotic collection of crushed rafts and blackened water. This accident was estimated to have caused an oil spill amounting to between 12,000 and 15,000 barrels into Oil Creek.

Despite the devastation, the practice persisted and crowds gathered in the recently named settlement of Oil City at the mouth of the creek. Oilmen awaited their shipment of oil and prayed it survived. Thrill seekers joined in hopes of catching a glimpse of an event described as “more entertaining than a three-ringed circus.” Others looked to profit from the chaos by collecting oil that was about to float directly into their makeshift dams along the banks of the creek.

The continued use of pond freshets for oil shipments throughout the early 1860s reflected the belief that the loss of thousands of barrels of oil was an unavoidable risk for the burgeoning oil industry. The environmental and safety risks of this practice were discussed but remained secondary to the business interests of producers who constantly sought more effective measures of ensuring every barrel of oil reached the market. Only more productive shipping methods could save the waters of Oil Creek from further disaster.

The answer came first in the form of rail transportation. As the railroads encircled the oil region, more oil producers changed their shipping methods to take advantage of the easier access to rail centers that would ensure the safe delivery of every barrel produced.

Meanwhile, advancements in pipeline technology, such as the installation of iron piping and pumps along the route, led to the introduction of oil pipelines. Crisscrossing the hills and valleys, pipelines were soon laid between flowing wells in the field and railroad stations or ships along the Allegheny River at Oil City, increasing the confidence of producers and helping to stabilize the industry. Pipelines were the answer to the loss of oil experienced with pond freshets and helped Oil City become one of the leading oil towns in the world.

The story of early oil transportation methods shows us both how far we have come and how far we have left to go in ensuring we have the resources necessary to heat our homes in the winter while protecting our environment. After more than 160 years of innovation within the oil industry, pipeline malfunctions are a seemingly constant reminder that new methods of energy transportation are still required to meet our ever-growing needs. After all, if we do not find new ways to prevent these disasters from happening, we might as well just float oil barrels along our waterways and pray they make it in one piece.