The United States may be the world’s largest consumer of oil, but it’s also the world’s third biggest producer at almost nine million barrels a day, a figure surpassed only by Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The indigenous peoples of America had known about, and made use of, natural oil seeps since prehistoric times. Commercial salt wells also often yielded oil as a byproduct that was frequently discarded, but the oil industry only really got going after the discovery of oil at the Drake well of Oil Creek, Pennsylvania.
After being assured by a Yale chemistry professor that crude oil could be refined for uses such as lighting, George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake had set up the world’s first commercial oil rig in 1859, although others dispute this claim and point to earlier wells around the world. Regardless, the Drake well is certainly notable for triggering the first great surge of interest in oil production.
The main purpose of crude oil at this time was to make kerosene (paraffin) to use in lamps instead of whale oil, which had grown expensive as the animals became scarcer. The commercial success of the Drake well inevitably led to new wells being drilled in the Appalachian Basin, mostly where crude could already be seen seeping to the surface, or where oil had already been found in salt wells. This time also saw the entry of John D. Rockefeller into the oil sector – someone who would go on to lead the industry and become the wealthiest American of all time. His Standard Oil Company was the predecessor to oil giants like ExxonMobil, which also produces circulation oils like Mobil DTE Light.
In the early 19th Century, a surge of new oil discoveries helped the industry meet the growing demand for petrol to fuel cars and planes. In 1931, however, the Great Depression saw the industry in crisis as oil prices sank to 10 cents a barrel, although the industry recovered when oil became a key resource during World War II.
The US continues to be a major producer of oil, but its high consumption means it is a net importer. In fact, around two-thirds of the world’s oil production is consumed within the United States. The country’s native oil production has received a boost from shale oil in recent years, with the US Energy Information Administration estimating that it accounted for 52% of US crude oil production in 2015.