Environmental Benefits and Liabilities of Petroleum Resource Use

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Environmental Benefits and Liabilities of Petroleum Resource Use


Petroleum resources are naturally exposed to the atmosphere as the product of the composition and geology of Earth itself. Many of the regions where accumulations of petroleum exist were discovered long ago as various hydrocarbon fluids and gases seeped to the surface, where they either pooled or vented to the atmosphere. In its raw form, petroleum presents nominal environmental risk in highly localized areas. The primary environmental concern with the use of petroleum resources comes from the combustion process when used as a fuel. There are other concerns related to the means required to explore for, find, develop, and transport petroleum products to market. However, the use of petroleum as a prime source of energy is not without environmental benefits, particularly when compared to the fuel sources it displaced as technology began to advance and make petroleum a practical and economic alternative.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Petroleum, or crude oil, exists in compositions of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and other elements over a broad range of fluids, from very light oils to thick viscous tars to solid asphaltenes. The chemical composition of petroleum is generally 83–87% carbon, 10–14% hydrogen, 0.01–2% nitrogen (N), 0.1–1.5% oxygen (O), and 0.5–6% sulfur (S) and may include trace quantities of various metals. Gases may break out of the volatile fluid either within Earth’s substrata or once on the surface depending on temperature and pressure. In any form, petroleum is flammable and is toxic to some degree if ingested and can be fatal in extreme situations.

History records the use of tar in the construction of the walls of ancient Babylon over 4,000 years ago. Pitch and tar have been used to make boats watertight for at least as long. The use of tars in this fashion increased the risk of fire and has been credited with the ease with which so many ancient cities were destroyed throughout history.

Until the technology advances of the late 1700s into the mid-1850s enabled the practical distillation of kerosene from petroleum, the primary energy sources were wood, coal, and whale oil. Clearly each of these fuels had significant environmental impact and consequence. World population was between 1.1 and 1.4 billion people in 1850. Imagine the environmental impact today if these were the only energy sources available with a world population well in excess of 6.5 billion and growing. Air quality would most likely be extremely poor over considerably greater areas than it was in 1850. Deforestation would be a far more serious issue and require well-coordinated forestry management to balance supply and demand, and whales would have likely been hunted into extinction quite some time ago. The advent of petroleum as a readily available energy source has greatly relieved the use of wood as a fuel and all but eliminated the use of whale oil except perhaps in a few isolated locations. Coal is still in use but improving technology continues to lessen its risks.

Impacts and Issues

Much has changed from the early days of petroleum exploration and development, when technology was limited and concern for the economics and environmental effects of the activity were less than they are today. Old photographs can be found showing conditions that became completely unacceptable decades ago, and considerable efforts and vast sums of money are spent ally to conduct petroleum operations in the safest and most environmentally friendly means possible to meet critical energy needs and avoid the use of less-friendly fuels.

The basic and most obvious environmental concern in using petroleum resources as fuel is due to the chemistry of the combustion process. During combustion, refined petroleum (as gasoline, diesel fuel, or fuel oil) is combined with oxygen and compressed and ignited, producing heat, carbon dioxide (CO2), and water vapor as the products. However, because the combustion is often less than complete and other elements are present in the air and fuel mixture, carbon monoxide (CO), nitrousoxide (N20), and various sulfur compounds are also produced and released. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide are both asphyxiates, and the sulfuric compounds may pose other risks. The affects of this process are most easily detected andoften seen in the lower air quality of concentrated trafficareas such as large cities.

The various grades of petroleum as a fuel range through several grades of gasoline to diesel fuel to various grades of bunker or heating oils. Each grade combusts at different optimal temperatures and pressures, gives off different levels of energy, and produces different byproducts at different costs to produce. The more expensive fuels generate energy more efficiently and are generally cleaner burning, while the less expensive fuels are less efficient, produce greater levels of undesirable byproducts, and are used for different purposes. High-performing engines such as those in aircraft or high-per-formance vehicles require higher end fuels, where a boiler used to heat a building can use less expensive and lower-quality heating oil.

Before petroleum resources can reach the point of combustion, however, there are multiple steps that must take place to locate, find, access, produce, refine, and deliver them to the engine or burner tip.


All of the easy-to-find petroleum resources that could be found have been found and most likely consumed to depletion. An extensive ongoing exploratory effort has been required for several decades to locate possible petroleum accumulations within Earth’s substrate to continue to meet energy demands. This effort includes searching both on land and below the sea floor into ever-deeper waters. Acquisition of seismic data is a critical tool in this process. Seismic data enable geologists to develop interpretative maps of the substructure of Earth to a depth of several miles. The data are generated by sending a series of pulsed energy waves into the subsurface and recoding the reflections as the energy bounces off the different rock interfaces and passes through the various rock material and fluids trapped with the natural porosity of the rock. The strength and relative velocities of the energy wave reflections are recorded and processed through some of the world’s most advanced


ASPHYXIATES: Compounds that cause a shortage of oxygen.

DISTILLATION: The process of purifying a liquid by successive evaporation and condensation.

RECLAMATION: The act of restoring to use.

WHALE OIL: Oil rendered from the blubber of a whale.

computing systems to develop maps where probable petroleum deposits may be located. The process requires the use of specialized vehicles on land, in the air, and at sea that consume fuel. The generation of energy waves requires energy consumption.

Initially, efforts to generate the energy wave necessary to acquire seismic data employed explosive charges. Recording instruments would be positioned, a charge detonated, and data collected. On land, the process usually required moving personnel and equipment through remote areas unaccustomed to such traffic, sometimes requiring clearing vegetation for roadways, and was loud and somewhat disturbing to anything sensing the energy wave. As application of the technology moved offshore, the effects of the explosive charges on aquatic life were more noticeable, particularly in the immediate areas of the detonation. Advancing technology eliminated the use of explosives. On land, vibrator trucks are routinely used to impact the ground and send an energy wave into the subsurface. Offshore, air guns that release controlled bursts of compressed air or electronic devices that generate a sonic wave are used to generate energy waves. The environmental impact of this activity is site-specific and often season-specific and can range from being relatively minor to having some detrimental effects in the immediate area of wave generation.

Once areas of interest are identified, additional higher-quality seismic study may be required, repeating the process described earlier. As confidence is gained in the mapping process, an exploratory well is drilled to prove, revise, or disprove the geologic interpretation and existence of petroleum potential. Drilling rigs come in a number of configurations and sizes based on proposed well depth and design. Before a drilling rig can be placed at the specific location necessary to reach the desired target, an area must be prepared to receive the rig.


Location preparation onshore may require building roads and clearing an area of suitable size to accept the rig and all of the equipment and support materials necessary to conduct drilling operations. Often materials are hauled in to stabilize or cover the soil to handle the weight of the very large and heavy equipment that will be moved onto the location prior to and during drilling rig operations. Upon completion of drilling operations and after removal of the rig, it is possible to restore the affected area to being close to its original condition, which is often done when required by law or contract.

Offshore in very shallow waters, self-contained barge rigs may be floated into position and set on the sea floor on prepared pads, which can affect the natural flora and fauna.

Offshore in intermediate water depths, mobile jack-up rigs or portable platform rigs are commonly used. A jack-up rig is a barge-type rig that jacks itself out of the water on mechanical legs that rest on the sea floor. Again, the site must be prepared to receive the bases of the mechanical legs and may require clearing of the existing flora and fauna and stabilization. A platform rig requires the construction of a platform base sitting on the sea floor that rises above the wave height of the sea. Such a platform may be left in place for later producing operations if drilling results prove favorable.

Offshore in deeper waters, self-contained floating drilling rigs, or drill ships, are commonly used. In some instances, floating platforms secured to the sea floor may be used to support portable or permanent drilling rigs. Anchor systems set into the sea floor are required to secure the drilling systems in place and provide stable operations. Such operations usually require more equipment being set on the sea floor as part of safe operational practices. Every installation of equipment on the sea floor has some effect on the flora and fauna in the immediate area, though often minimal.

In most cases, the affected sites can and often are restored to conditions very close to original, depending on regulatory and contractual requirements. History has shown that when such efforts are made, the sites are very often reclaimed by the local flora and fauna. Salvaged platforms and facilities are often sought by governments to be sunk offshore as artificial habitats after cleaning and securing, with great success.

Inland water locations in open areas may require the use of barge rigs as used in shallow water offshore locations or portable rigs set on smaller platforms. Depending on water depth and tidal fluctuations, it may become necessary to dredge canals to sufficient depths to permit the required support activities brought in on boat or barge. In marshlands, dredging canals is usually required. The environmental impact of dredging is significant. Local flora and fauna are disrupted or displaced. Water flow patterns are often altered, which in turn alter any existing soil deposition systems. The loss of depositional systems can cause the loss of wetlands and the ecosystems they support. Reclamation of dredged canals and drilling sites in wetland environments is a difficult and expensive process and is not always performed.

For many years, the impact of dredging activities in wetland environments was not fully understood or appreciated but has become a major issue in many areas dependent on wetlands for supporting wildlife or storm surge protection.

During drilling operations, fluid is circulated down the drill pipe and back to the surface to keep the natural subsurface pressure from flowing into and plugging the well bore, to lubricate the drilling operation, and to carry rock cuttings and debris to the surface. This control fluid is referred to as drilling mud and is often just that, mud consisting of a water and soil mixture of sufficient qualities to function as desired. Often a variety of chemical additives are added to improve performance. Many of the additives are natural materials and harmless to the environment but there are specialized additives often used that require special handling to prevent harm to the site environment. As drilling proceeds, drill cuttings are separated from the fluid system. If they are harmless to the environment, they may be simply dumped onsite but if they pose a risk, they must be disposed in an approved manner often requiring that they be hauled to a proper handling facility. In areas where the environment is particularly sensitive to any change, no discharges are permitted and all disposable cuttings and materials are hauled away to an approved site.

However, some well designs and subsurface rock conditions may require considerably more exotic fluid-control systems and may include oil-based fluids that require very special handling and equipment and are not suitable for local discharge.

Certain instruments lowered into the well bore and retrieved—to gather information about the rock types encountered and the fluids filling the porosity—use radioactive elements. Occasionally due to mechanical failure, these tools are lost in the hole. Efforts are made to retrieve the lost tools, but after exhausting practical means they are sometimes abandoned in place and officially reported. The actual threat to the environment is very low or none at all.

Upon conclusion of drilling operations, the control fluid may be disposed of and replaced in the well bore or left in place as part of the completed well ready for production. Quite often water-based fluid that contains only natural materials is disposed of by spreading it over agricultural fields to add soil and mineral content in a safe manner with a positive effect on the environment. All other fluid systems require disposal in a safe manner to neutralize any potentially harmful effects.


As producing operations proceed, the raw fluid flow from the wells requires separation of liquids from gases for transport to the next step in delivering the final products to the end-users. Saltwater is separated from the oil and is usually treated on site to required levels of envi-

ronmental quality before being discharged or is injected back into subsurface formations. Other impurities may need to be removed from the oil and will either be treated and hauled to proper disposal sites, incinerated, or rendered inert and discharged within regulatory guidelines. Occasionally small amounts of gas are flared to maintain safe operations of the various stages of equipment. Depending on site requirements and conditions, or in the case of large volumes, flare gas is incinerated on site, which may have an impact on the local environment similar to that of engine exhaust.

Also during producing operations, trace minerals often form scale deposits along the inner walls of piping. Some of these scales are what is known as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials or NORMs. Such occurrences are monitored and require proper handing and disposal techniques. NORMs are not unique to petroleum production and do occur in many areas of water and other fluid flow from within Earth. Vegetables grown in soil, such as carrots and potatoes, display a level of radioactivity when tested, due to the radiant effects of the sun.


Produced petroleum is then delivered to processing facilities via trucks, ships, and/or pipelines and refined into a vast array of products that play critical roles in modern life and have diminished the use of less environmentally friendly materials. The transportation process requires the extensive use of engines to generate power to drive pumps and other machinery. Pumping stations are required to provide the energy to push products via pipelines to the next station or user. Pumping stations, like producing facilities, require the occasional venting of gases and removal and disposal of fluids for safe operation.


As refineries process petroleum into different grades of gasoline and other fuels and product streams that are used to produce lubricants, plastics, waxes, and paraffins, fuel is consumed to generate the heat needed in the distillation process and by engines to generate power to drive the system. As petroleum is distilled, different product streams are taken out of the system at their respective boiling points. Vapors and waste gases are generated and must be disposed of, usually through incineration. Remaining water is extracted and must be treated and disposed of when not recycled in the process. This is a major issue anywhere a refinery or processing plant is located and requires constant air, ground, and water quality monitoring by both automated systems and personnel to ensure safe operation.


As shown, there is considerable exposure to environmental risks in each step of the process required to utilize petroleum resources. However, industrial means and technology have shown the ability and commitment to manage these risks, and societies need them to do so while continuing to provide the many products needed in today’s world. Until such time as any of the alternative energy sources under study or yet to emerge prove to be reliably available at economically competitive costs, petroleum resources will continue to be the major energy source in use.

Primary Source Connection

United States v. Standard Oil Co. was a Supreme Court case (384 US 224) in which the United States was a litigant against Standard Oil of Kentucky—one of the many Standard Oil companies that marketed oil and gasoline to consumers. In 1966, Standard Oil Kentucky was indicted for having released 100-octane gasoline fuel into the St. Johns River in Florida. However, the district court of Florida was of the view that commercially valuable gasoline did not constitute “refuse matter,” and decided that the aviation gasoline discharged into the river did not violate the provisions of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.

Subsequently, the United States approached the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision and criminally indicted Standard Oil.

While ruling against the district court’s decision, the Supreme Court opined that this case was referred at a crucial phase in the country’s history when there was significant concern over matters like environmental and waste pollution. Most environmental experts maintain that the ruling against Standard Oil marked a important awakening in modern awareness of the perils of water pollution.

Following this criminal prosecution, it becomes important to examine the status of pollution legislation in America. Since the 1970s, a number of laws have been enacted to tackle the problem of water and environmental pollution. They include the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970, the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1977, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) of 1990, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.


Appellant was indicted for discharging gasoline into navigable waters in violation of the proscription in 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act against discharge therein of “any refuse matter of any kind or description.” The District Court dismissed the indictment on the ground that “refuse matter” does not include commercially valuable material. Held: The discharge of commercially valuable gasoline into navigable waters is encompassed by 13 of the Act. Pp. 225-230.

  1. Petroleum products, whether useable or not, when discharged into navigable waters constitute a menace to navigation and pollute rivers and harbors. P. 226.
  2. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 was a consolidation of prior acts which enumerated various pollutants and impediments to navigation, drawing no distinction between valuable and valueless substances; the term “refuse matter” in the present Act is a shorthand substitute for the exhaustive list of substances found in the earlier Acts. Pp. 226-229.
  3. The word “refuse” includes all foreign substances and pollutants except, as provided in 13, those “flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state” into the watercourse. P. 230.


Nathan Lewin argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Marshall, Assistant Attorney General Vinson and Beatrice Rosenberg.

Earl B. Hadlow argued the cause and filed a brief for appellee.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented for decision is whether the statutory ban on depositing “any refuse matter of any kind or description” in a navigable water covers the discharge of commercially valuable aviation gasoline.

Section 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act provides:

“It shall not be lawful to throw, discharge, or deposit… any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever other than that flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state, into any navigable water of the United States… ” 33 U.S.C. 407 (1964 ed.).

The indictment charged appellee, Standard Oil (Kentucky), with violating 13 by allowing to be discharged into the St. Johns River “refuse matter” consisting of 100-octane aviation gasoline. Appellee moved to dismiss the indictment, and, for the purposes of the motion, the parties entered into a stipulation of fact. It states that the gasoline was commercially valuable and that it was discharged into the St. Johns only because a shut-off valve at dockside had been “accidentally” left open.

The District Court dismissed the indictment because it was of the view that the statutory phrase “refuse matter” does not include commercially valuable oil. The United States appealed directly to this Court under the Criminal Appeals Act (18 U.S.C. 3731 (1964 ed.)). We noted probable jurisdiction.

This case comes to us at a time in the Nation’s history when there is greater concern than ever over pollution—one of the main threats to our free-flowing rivers and to our lakes as well. The crisis that we face in this respect would not, of course, warrant us in manufacturing offenses where Congress has not acted nor in stretching statutory language in a criminal field to meet strange conditions. But whatever may be said of the rule of strict construction, it cannot provide a substitute for common sense, precedent, and legislative history. We cannot construe 13 of the Rivers and Harbors Act in a vacuum. Nor can we read it as Baron Parke would read a pleading.

The statutory words are “any refuse matter of any kind or description.” We said in United States v. Republic Steel Corp., that the history of this provision and of related legislation dealing with our free-flowing rivers “forbids a narrow, cramped reading” of 13. The District Court recognized that if this were waste oil it would be “refuse matter” within the meaning of 13 but concluded that it was not within the statute because it was “valuable” oil. That is “a narrow, cramped reading” of 13 in partial defeat of its purpose.

Oil is oil and whether useable or not by industrial standards it has the same deleterious effect on waterways. In either case, its presence in our rivers and harbors is both a menace to navigation and a pollutant. This seems to be the administrative construction of 13, the Solicitor General advising us that it is the basis of prosecution in approximately one-third of the oil pollution cases reported to the Department of Justice by the Office of the Chief of Engineers.

Section 13 codified pre-existing statutes:

An 1886 Act (24 Stat. 329) made it unlawful to empty “any ballast, stone, slate, gravel, earth, slack, rubbish, wreck, filth, slabs, edgings, sawdust, slag, or cinders, or other refuse or mill-waste of any kind into New York Harbor”—which plainly includes valuable pre-discharge material.

An 1888 Act (25 Stat. 209) “to prevent obstructive and injurious deposits” within the Harbor of New York and adjacent waters banned the discharge of “refuse, dirt, ashes, cinders, mud, sand, dredgings, sludge, acid, or any other matter of any kind, other than that flowing from streets, sewers, and passing therefrom in a liquid state”—which also plainly includes valuable pre-discharge material. (Emphasis added.)

The 1890 Act (26 Stat. 453) made unlawful emptying into navigable waters “any ballast, stone, slate, gravel, earth, rubbish, wreck, filth, slabs, edgings, sawdust, slag, cinders, ashes, refuse, or other waste of any kind…which shall tend to impede or obstruct navigation.” Here also valuable pre-discharge materials were included.

The 1894 Act (28 Stat. 363) prohibited deposits in harbors and rivers for which Congress had appropriated money for improvements, of “ballast, refuse, dirt, ashes, cinders, mud, sand, dredgings, sludge, acid, or any other matter of any kind other than that flowing from streets, sewers, and passing therefrom in a liquid state.” This Act also included valuable pre-discharge material.

The Acts of 1886 and 1888, then, dealt specifically with the New York Harbor; the scope of the latter was considerably broader, covering as it did the deposit of “any other matter of any kind.” The Acts of 1890 and 1894 paralleled the earlier enactments pertaining to New York, applying their terms to waterways throughout the Nation.

The 1899 Act now before us was no more than an attempt to consolidate these prior Acts into one. It was indeed stated by the sponsor in the Senate to be “in accord with the statutes now in existence, only scattered… from the beginning of the statutes down through to the end” (32 Cong. Rec. 2296), and reflecting merely “very slight changes to remove ambiguities.” Id., p. 2297.

From an examination of these statutes, several points are clear. First, the 1894 Act and its antecedent, the 1888 Act applicable to the New York Harbor, drew on their face no distinction between valuable and valueless substances. Second, of the enumerated substances, some may well have had commercial or industrial value prior to discharge into the covered waterways. To be more specific, ashes and acids were banned whether or not they had any remaining commercial or industrial value. Third, these Acts applied not only to the enumerated substances but also to the discharge of “any other matter of any kind.” Since the enumerated substances included those with a pre-discharge value, the rule of ejusdem generis does not require limiting this latter category to substances lacking a pre-discharge value. Fourth, the coverage of these Acts was not diminished by the codification of 1899. The use of the term “refuse” in the codification serves in the place of the lengthy list of enumerated substances found in the earlier Acts and the catch-all provision found in the Act of 1890. The legislative history demonstrates without contradiction that Congress intended to codify without substantive change the earlier Acts.

The philosophy of those antecedent laws seems to us to be clearly embodied in the present law. It is plain from its legislative history that the “serious injury” to our watercourses (S. Rep. No. 224, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 2) sought to be remedied was caused in part by obstacles that impeded navigation and in part by pollution—“the discharge of sawmill waste into streams” (ibid.) and the injury of channels by “deposits of ballast, steam-boat ashes, oysters, and rubbish from passing vessels.” Ibid. The list is obviously not an exhaustive list of pollutants. The words of the Act are broad and inclusive: “any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever.” Only one exception is stated: “other than that flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state, into any navigable water of the United States.” More comprehensive language would be difficult to select. The word “refuse” does not stand alone; the “refuse” banned is “of any kind or description whatever,” apart from the one exception noted. And, for the reasons already stated, the meaning we must give the term “refuse” must reflect the present codification’s statutory antecedents.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in United States v. Ballard Oil Co., 195 F.2d 369 (L. Hand, Augustus Hand, and Harrie Chase, JJ.) held that causing good oil to spill into a watercourse violated 13. The word “refuse” in that setting, said the court, “is satisfied by anything which has become waste, however useful it may earlier have been.” Id., p. 371. There is nothing more deserving of the label “refuse” than oil spilled into a river.

That seems to us to be the common sense of the matter. The word “refuse” includes all foreign substances and pollutants apart from those “flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state” into the watercourse.

That reading of 13 is in keeping with the teaching of Mr. Justice Holmes that a “river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure.” New Jersey v. New York. It reads 13 charitably as United States v. Republic Steel Corp., supra, admonished. We pass only on the quality of the pollutant, not on the quantity of proof necessary to support a conviction nor on the question as to what sci-enter requirement the Act imposes, as those questions are not before us in this restricted appeal.

U.S. Supreme Court




Hyne, Norman J. Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling and Production, 2nd ed. Tulsa, OK: PennWell Books, 2001.

Web Sites

American Petroleum Institute. “Environment, Health, Safety.” September 7, 2007. http://www.api.org/ehs (accessed April 16, 2006).

Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. “Petroleum.” http://www.eia.doe.gov/oil_gas/petroleum/info_glance/petroleum.html (accessed April 16, 2008).

U.S. Geological Survey. “Energy Research and News.” April 16, 2008. http://energy.usgs.gov (accessed April 16, 2008).

Wiser Earth. “Petroleum in the Environment.” May 31, 2007. http://www.wiserearth.Org/aof/114 (accessed April 16, 2006).

William J. Engle

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