Oil Barrels Aren't Real Anymore

Once a cask that held crude, the oil barrel is now mostly an economic concept. An Object Lesson.

A worker walks between stacks of red and white oil barrels.
Oil barrels at a storage facility in Jakarta, Indonesia (Supri Supri / Reuters)

The U.S. oil industry pumps more than 3 billion barrels of crude per year. Oil crosses continents in pipelines like the Keystone, which moves 1.3 million barrels per day. It travels between them on tanker ships, the largest of which can carry 3.7 million barrels. When oil leaks, the disaster is quantified in barrels spilled—more than 250,000 from the Exxon Valdez, and at least 3 million from Deepwater Horizon. When oil sells, it is priced per barrel, and when it burns, its energy output is measured in “barrel-of-oil equivalents” (5.8 × 106 BTUs). The world of oil is a world of barrels.

And yet less and less of the oil trade requires actual barrels. In the movies they make good historical set pieces and symbols of future apocalypse. But there aren’t any barrels in the Dakota Access Pipeline. No barrels rolled off the Exxon Valdez. And the oil that spewed from Deepwater Horizon never had a chance to reach a barrel in the first place.

So why do people still talk about barrels when they talk about oil? Because the oil barrel became a concept rather than a physical thing.

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The oil barrel almost didn’t survive the 19th century. Oil companies hated them: Barrels were leaky, costly, and cumbersome. But they were also necessary. When the first Pennsylvania wells began gushing in the late 1850s, prospectors scrambled to catch the erupting crude. Any container would do—whiskey or ale jugs, salt or turpentine vats. The best option was an old one: the casks still used today to age wines and whiskies. They dated to the Romans and Celts, who designed them to replace clay pots for moving wine and olive oil. In the first Pennsylvania oil fields, demand for those barrels rose so quickly that at times their price exceeded the value of oil itself.

The first oil barrels held between 31.5 and 45 gallons, but Pennsylvania producers settled on a common standard by the late 1860s. They based their new system on another old-world model. In 1482, King Edward IV had moved to eliminate shady dealing in the English herring industry by imposing a 42-gallon standard on shipping containers. Oil companies promised similar market consistency with an added bonus. They would sell oil in 40-gallon units, but buyers would also get “an allowance of two gallons” as a measure of good faith. The measurement stuck.

The barrel requirement was hard to solve. John D. Rockefeller fought the battle on multiple fronts. If Standard Oil had to use barrels, it would do it on the cheap. Barrel manufacturing became part of the oil monopoly—one tentacle of Rockefeller’s octopoid oil empire, as an editorial cartoon of the era cast his business. To cut prices, Standard cut trees, and acres of oaks became stacks of barrels. By the 20th century, Standard had developed steel containers that eliminated the need for trees (and Rockefeller made another fortune selling iron ore to steel plants). But the basic problems remained: The barrels were still hard to move, and Standard’s mass-produced steel ones had worse seals, meaning more leaks.

Standard and its competitors wanted to eliminate the barrels altogether. They developed railway tanks to replace barrel-filled boxcars and sent horse-drawn kegs to distribute kerosene to local retailers. Water transport was desirable but inefficient, because the barrels were so heavy (and leaky). But in the early 1870s, small tanker boats made shipment by river possible without barrels. By the end of the decade, Ludvig Nobel (brother of Alfred, the Nobel Prize founder) had developed a tanker called the Zoroaster to ship Russian oil across the Caspian Sea. And in the 1890s, similar ships sent Standard Oil all around the world.

These years also witnessed the emergence of the pipeline system. If oil could get from the well to the refinery in a single container, the barrels and the teamsters who moved them could be eliminated. From the earliest days of drilling, short pipelines built using wooden ducts and gravity offered one approach—at least if they didn’t leak, which they usually did. Soon, iron pipes and pumps made longer lines viable. In 1865, the first commercial line ran five miles from Pithole City, Pennsylvania, to the railroad terminal in Oil Creek. In 1881, Standard connected the Pennsylvania oil fields to New York City, and over the next decade it created similar lines to link fields in Ohio with refineries in Chicago. By the 1890s, longer lines and larger pipes linked new fields from Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast to Illinois. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline are just the latest versions of the same saga—the dream of an oil world without barrels.

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The barrels finally changed in 1905, when Nellie Bly patented the steel drum still used today. Bly designed her barrels to carry more oil, 55 gallons, and to leak less. Her invention also caused the barrel’s meaning to separate from its physical reality. Despite adoption of the new, larger barrels, the old 42-gallon quantity remained the industry unit of measure for a “barrel”—as it still does. The barrels people used to hold oil were no longer the barrels they used to talk about it. A barrel became a quantity of oil futures sold, or crude spilled, or latent energy stored.

The discrepancy between the barrel’s physical reality and its meaning in industry parlance didn’t do anything to solve the barrel problem. Bly had improved the barrels, but no barrels at all would still have been better for the oil business. Even better would be symbolic barrels that existed in name only, used to measure production and sales, but hidden from sight. To present a good public face, the barrels that did exist were painted in corporate colors and logos. Like advertisements, promotional films, and glossy service stations, colorful containers like Standard’s “holy blue barrels,” as the muckraker Ida Tarbell called them, sold as pleasant and diverting an image as possible.

Talking about barrels that weren’t real made perfect sense. They were part of how the industry presented its contribution, measured in the number of barrels produced, to the economy, national security, and the everyday happiness of a nation of drivers. Could there ever be too many “barrels” in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

By the 1950s, the spread of pipelines, rail tanks, and tanker trucks meant that less and less oil needed to move in barrels. They found alternate use—in ports, for instance, where they transported raw materials and carried fuel for ships. But they also piled up in suburban junkyards as evidence of their looming obsolescence.

As waste objects, the barrels found new lives in the art world. As a young artist working in Paris, Christo Javacheff would drag them from the junkyard to his studio, where he learned to turn industrial objects into modern art by wrapping and stacking them. In 1962, less than a year after the construction of the Berlin Wall, he and his partner Jeanne-Claude used barrels to barricade Paris’s narrowest street. They called it the “Iron Curtain.” Their barrels—once icons of the global oil trade—became symbols of a world divided.

As objects, oil barrels have had many fates in the last half-century. Hobos and hippies turned the discarded ones into fireplaces. Trinidadian drummers turned them into steelpans. And a DIY manual for making your own barrel-bottom fire pit, trash can, planter, or kegerator is just clicks away.

For the oil industry, the 19th-century barrel problem has taken on new forms. In places like Nigeria, for instance, they support a thriving black market. Siphoned from leaky pipelines, this illicit oil moves in barrels again. Meanwhile scientists continue to search for better ways to move the stuff, perhaps even in a future without pipelines.

In authorized settings, the oil barrel continues to find uses in the industrial hinterlands. The last time I saw an oil barrel was in a Tuscan marble mine. I was touring the quarries in Carrara, home of the famed white marble that gave us Michelangelo’s “David”—along with countless kitchen countertops and bank facades. Near the end of the tour, something caught my eye. Tucked off in a corner was a pile of oil barrels, dented and dirty but with the brand names still visible. It was one of those unusual places where oil barrels remain more than just words.

The oil barrel tells a story of struggle between what industries need and what they want. Oil companies needed barrels, but they didn’t want them. They were dirty, wasteful objects. When the industry got rid of them, it became a little less dirty, and a little less wasteful. But mostly it became easier to trade the mess and the waste for the image the industry wanted: a world of energy, vitality, and security.