Oil, petroleum and WD-40

Oil is that slimy liquid that is sometimes called black gold, and it greases the skids of civilization. Whether we’re buying or selling it, comparing prices, consuming or trying to clean up spills, we’re all in the oil business.  It’s the slippery stuff that provides the most accessible, inexpensive, moveable, safe and plentiful energy-efficient product in the world and the oil that we use now comes out of the ground, maybe six miles below the surface. We used to get it from pine trees, whales and other animals. We enjoy it, pay for it and fight for it. Economists say it is as fungible as money. You can bank on that. Chemically, it is like tar, pitch, turpentine and WD-40, things the colonists needed.

Petroleum was known in antiquity. The Egyptians used it for mummy preservation and for making boats of woven bulrushes. The Japanese used “rock oil” for light 2,000 years ago, and the Chinese apparently drilled for it in 221 BCE. Exxon-Mobil still calls petroleum a “fossil fuel,” though no one has ever found the fossil that produces it. Col. (honorary) E. L. Drake drilled the first oil well in America in 1859, and the historic Drake hit oil at 69 feet in Oil Creek, Pa.

British Petroleum earned over $16 billion last year. Its quarterly dividend could go a long way toward cleanup of the Gulf. BP has lost about half its value since the oil spill in April. It was the third largest oil company, behind Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch.

We buy gasoline, a petroleum product, by the mil. The mil is an archaic term for a coin which the United States government never minted. We are still hobbled with the English weights and measures, and the mil – the funny, awkward nine-tenths of a cent that oil companies use, as if they are cutting the cost to the bone.

Gasoline “service stations,” as they used to be called, charge something like $2.49 and nine-tenths of a cent or $2.499 for a gallon of gas, which is very, very little less than $2.50, but the oil companies have concluded this is good business. They employ the finest Harvard, Stanford and VCU business-school graduates to market their products because they know that when the posted price is $2.49 and nine-tenths, we are inclined to say it’s $2.49, dropping the nine-tenths rather than adding the one-tenth.

Since all of the major oil companies do this, it seems to be a conspiracy against consumers. Maybe, some day, an alert attorney general will seek a violation of the antitrust laws. If one company were to round off the mil, even to the higher cent, I would give them my business. Watch for its stock to zoom!

What would we do if eggs were priced at $1.59 and nine-tenths of a cent per dozen? Oil companies continue this practice at a time when the Boomers are concerned about multitasking and nano seconds.

Among the necessities produced from petroleum are: Duct Tape (or Duck Tape), lubricants, asphalt, fuel and WD-40.

We are importing, I read in the paper, millions of tons of oil. How much oil is that? I ask myself; so I called my friend the expert.

 “How many barrels in a ton?” I inquired.

“Gross ton or net ton?” he said.

“I don’t know.” I said.

“Well,” he said. “I mean long ton or short ton?”

“I don’t know.”

“Metric ton, avoirdupois ton or troy ton?” he asked.

“Look,” I said. “Stop showing off. All I want to know is how many barrels in a ton.”

“Well,” he said, “maybe we’d better start at the beginning. How many gallons are in this barrel you’re talking about?”

“What difference does it make?” I asked. “How many gallons are in any barrel?”

“Well,” he said, “31 gallons if it’s wine or beer. Thirty-one and a half if it’s water, including rainwater, except...”

“There’s oil in the barrel,” I said.

“Refined oil or crude oil?” he asked.

“Crude oil,” I said.

“What kind of gallons?” he asked.

“What do you mean what kind of gallons?” I shouted.

“U. S. standard or British imperial?” he asked.

“Gallons, gallons the kind you put in a car!” I said.

“The British imperial gallon is different from ours,” he said patiently. ”Namely, the volume of 10 imperial pounds of distilled water at a temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit with the barometer at 30 inches. The metric system will be much simpler. A meter for example, is simply one million...”

I interrupted him. “Look,” I said, “I’m just trying to figure out how much oil we’re importing.”

“Oh,” he said. “Heaps.”


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