University of Pittsburgh
April 26, 2009

Pitt Experts Available to Comment on the 150th Anniversary of the Oil Industry and Its Birth in Western Pennsylvania

Since Edwin Drake sparked the modern oil industry on Aug. 27, 1859, with his well in Titusville, Pa., petroleum has dominated economics and politics, Pitt experts say
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH-In the 150 years since Col. Edwin Drake built the world's first commercially successful oil well in Titusville, Pa., on Aug. 27, 1859, the substance that began as a replacement for whale oil has evolved into a mainstay of transportation, consumer products, and global politics.

Experts from the University of Pittsburgh are available to comment on the evolution and prominence of the oil industry and its prominence, from its inception to its future. They include: William Brice, an oil industry historian and expert on Drake and the early oil industry; ecologist Christopher Coat on the environmental impact of the Pennsylvania oil boom; petroleum engineer Badie Morsi on how oil-based energy and products are integral in the modern world; historian Richard P. Mulcahy on oil's rise to energy dominance; and Assad Panah, a petroleum technology expert, on new techniques to extract deep oil and natural gas deposits and Pennsylvania's re-emerging energy role. Expanded biographies and contact information are below.

The Pittsburgh region has been central to the oil industry's development. It has served as the site of the first refineries and of such companies as Gulf Oil; the birthplace and inspiration of journalist Ida Tarbell, whose reports initiated the breakup of Standard Oil; and the home of the world's first petroleum engineering program, founded at Pitt in 1910 and still active in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. Pennsylvania's oil region is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Drake's well with a year of events and festivals. More information is available on the Oil 150 Web site at

Pitt and Pittsburgh are still active in energy. The region is home to major corporations specializing in coal, nuclear, and electric power engineering. Pitt offers certificate programs in these areas designed to provide the education that today's energy companies want employees to have. Pittsburgh also hosts one of five facilities for the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), the lead research and development office for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy. NETL and Pitt collaborate on numerous energy projects. Pitt's Center for Energy comprises more than 40 faculty members from various disciplines conducting advanced energy research in gas hydrates, wind power, 'smart' electric power grids, and carbon sequestration, among other areas.

William Brice, a historian of the oil industry and emeritus professor of earth and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, says that oil extraction and refining techniques pioneered in Western Pennsylvania transformed oil into today's dominant energy source. He adds that the attributes of oil that fueled its rise in the 19th century are stalling the adoption of more sustainable energy sources in the 21st century. Before 1859, the dominant fuels were whale oil and coal. After Drake found that crude could be extracted in large quantities, businessmen like Samuel Kier, who established the nation's first oil refinery in Pittsburgh in 1850, developed methods to process it into such products as kerosene. Now, the oil industry faces unstable prices, over-demand, and a diminishing supply, as did the whalers of Drake's time, but with no ready substitute, Brice said. "Oil companies see the handwriting on the rocks, but until we find a source with all the benefits of fossil fuels, they will be our primary energy source for the foreseeable future," he said. Brice is editor of "Oil Industry History," the only peer-reviewed journal about the history of the global oil and gas industry, and author of "Myth, Legend, and Reality: Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry" (Oil Region Alliance), scheduled for publication in Summer 2009. He also was a visiting professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to 2002. In 2008, Brice received the Gerald M. and Sue T. Friedman History of Geology Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America.

Christopher Coat, an ecologist at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, says that the Pennsylvania oil boom's impact on the surrounding landscape and environment would shock modern Americans. Prior to the boom, pastoral Titusville hosted a thriving timber industry; after the 1859 discovery, the hills and valleys were clear-cut and the waterways ran thick with oil and sludge. "If oilmen needed wood for barrels or derricks, they just cut down trees," said Coat. "It was a big business with no regulations, and they took advantage of it." The area's forests and waterways have largely recovered, but residents of the time lived with mudslides from stripped hillsides and toxic streams that burst into flame: In June 1892, at least 60 people died when a flooded, polluted Oil Creek caught fire.

Badie Morsi, director of the Petroleum Engineering Program and a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, says that reducing our society's reliance on oil will require dramatic lifestyle changes. Beyond fuel, Morsi said, petroleum is essential for construction, medicine, road building, and millions of products, from eyeglasses and heart valves to tires and bubble gum. To meet demand, oil refineries-sprawling billion-dollar facilities that employ hundreds of people-run every day, and the United States imports more than half the oil it uses. "Oil has become the backbone of industry and modern civilization," he said. "It is virtually impossible to imagine our daily life without it." Morsi is internationally known for his research in reactor and process engineering and enhanced oil recovery. He has written and coauthored 114 technical papers and three book chapters, and his research group has given 200 presentations at national and international conferences, including 26 invited lectures. Among his many appointments, he was a fellow of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education from 1999 to 2002 and 2005 to 2008.

Richard P. Mulcahy, a professor of history and political science at Pitt-Titusville, is available to discuss the evolution of the oil industry and its rise to energy dominance. Crude oil was originally intended as a replacement for whale oil in lamps, he said. The demand for whale oil had resulted in several varieties of great whales being hunted nearly to extinction, and by 1859, the illuminant was expensive and hard to find. Crude oil eventually replaced whale oil as a light source, but the industry only rose to prominence in the late 19th century with the invention of the diesel and internal-combustion engines. Mulcahy is an expert of the bituminous coal industry and has studied the extractive industry in the United States, including the oil industry. He is the author of "A Social Contract for the Coal Fields: The Rise and Fall of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund" (University of Tennessee Press, 2001), as well as a section coeditor for "The Encyclopedia of Appalachia" (University of Tennessee Press, 2006).

Assad Panah, a professor of geology and environmental science and director of the Petroleum Technology Program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, says that burgeoning extraction techniques could prolong the age of oil and expand the use of natural gas. New drilling techniques are being developed to tap oil and gas stores deep underground and beneath the ocean, Panah said. These include introducing heat to deep, nonconventional oil deposits, such as oil shale, and horizontal drilling techniques that could broach multiple deposits from a single entry point. Pennsylvania stands to be a center of activity as natural gas extraction evolves, he said. The state sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, which experts have estimated contains up to 500 trillion cubic square feet of natural gas with about $500 billion of recoverable gas. Panah has published nearly 60 articles on geology, renewable energy, and geothermal energy, among other subjects. He was recently invited to join the editorial team of "International Journal of Energy". He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America. He served as president of the National Association of Academies of Science and the American Junior Academy of Sciences from 2003 to 2004.