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Petroleum Geogaphy

Geography of Petroleum and Its Distribution

By Christina Salas

Petroleum Geogaphy

A derrick is seen in front of the Chevron Oronite oil additives manufacturing facitlity in Plaquemines Parish May 19, 2008 in Belle Chasse, Louisiana.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Updated February 05, 2009
Petroleum geography is a specialized subfield of geography which has emerging in the past few decades within the geographic study of natural resources. As the world focuses on oil prices and gasoline prices and availability, geography is probably the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. So how does geography relate? Why does the where of it matter at all?

The Physical Geography of Petroleum

Behind the scenes of the global petroleum industry, little could function properly without a thorough understanding of geography. Countless pockets of oil reserves exist on earth. Some of these places are familiar to us (the Middle East and Alaska for example) due to their constant presence in the media. Others still, are less familiar (the Caspian Sea basin, South America and the North Sea).

Each oil-producing region differs on several fundamental bases. Firstly, not all oil is created equal. Sweet crude requires less energy to be extracted and once extracted, yields higher quality gasoline as well as larger quantities of it. Iraq is one of the leading producers of sweet crude. Sour crude, on the other hand, has a high level of impurities in it, namely sulfur, which must first be removed before being processed into gas and other petroleum based products. Venezuela is a leading producer of sour crude oil.

The type of oil then effects how it will be processed. Refineries are crude specific and require large amounts of capital to create. Refineries in the Caribbean Sea were produced specifically for processing Venezuelan sour crude, especially the extra-heavy sour crude extracted from the Orinoco River Valley of South America.

The Politics of Petroleum Geography

Politics play a heavy hand in all aspects of the geography of the petroleum industry. As oil exploration continues to flourish, it seems that almost every inch of the known world has been searched for oil. Once found, a long relationship between the government of the country where the oil was found and whichever multinational oil companies lays claim to it begins. Even countries with their own national oil companies rely to some extent on the capital and knowledge possessed by the large oil companies.

With the onset of new discoveries, vast amounts of infrastructure must be created, especially in places where none existed beforehand. Who foots the bill for the infrastructure (including but not limited to refineries, housing and other accommodations for foreign workers and most importantly roads) is always hotly contested. One of the most obvious geographic aspects of the oil industry is the need for pipelines. Points of origin do not always exist in easily accessible places. Pipelines pass from these points of origin through multiple states and often highly contested areas. It is not uncommon for petroleum to be stolen by groups laying claim to territories or for other political purposes. Transporting oil through pipelines saves companies from high transport costs.

Offshore oil drilling has also created a number of international disputes. The discovery of off-shore oil deposits is so lucrative because it negates the need for local population interaction. However, many off shore deposits have been hotly contested due to their exact proximity to different states. For example, the Caspian Sea is alternately classified as a sea or a lake. Depending on its status, the international maritime laws governing it are different and the oil underneath "belong" to different states (five countries border the Caspian and therefore five states lay claim to the wealth of oil underneath it).

Social Ramifications of the Petroleum Industry

One of the unfortunate aspects of the oil industry is the heightened level of displaced peoples that is often associated with oil extraction in developing states. Once oil is discovered, it becomes property of the country in which it is in or in the case of the sale of concessions, property of the company that first laid claim to it. In many circumstances, the people who inhabited the region have no claim to the oil or rights to the land. A gross example of this is the case of oil in the Niger River Valley where the Nigerian government has openly seized land and property from its own citizens for the sole benefit of companies such as Shell and British Petroleum.

Oil deposits are scattered all across the earth, located on every continent and in every ocean. The world, divided between those who have petroleum and those who have not, is fueled by oil and the drive to secure it. Why does the where matter? It more than matters, it determines the outcome of and the rules for the drive.

Christina Salas is a recent graduate from the University of Miami with a Master’s degree in geography. Her graduate studies focused on petroleum geopolitics and regionalism in South America.

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