That Time I Tried to Buy an Actual Barrel of Crude Oil
November 4, 2015 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Oil may be king of the commodities, but its physical form is tough to come by for a retail investor. Mom and pop can buy gold and silver. They can gather aluminum cans, grow soybeans, and strip copper wiring, if they choose, but oil remains elusive—and for very good reason. Oil, as I would soon discover, is practically useless in its unrefined form. It is also highly toxic, very difficult to store, and smells bad.
posted by Chrysostom (23 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
We once got a box of core samples from a well in Alaska shipped to our office. They stank so bad they almost caused a revolt. And you know that lady in the office that wears too much perfume? She had no idea what was going on.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:09 PM on November 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


But yeah, who wouldn't want a piece of the business making all of them barrels ...
posted by scruss at 3:44 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


SPECIAL DELIVERY
posted by chavenet at 3:53 PM on November 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Hydrogen Sulfide toxicity is no joke.

It is one thing when you can't breathe, that is bad. When your cells can't breathe? That is real, real bad.
posted by poe at 3:56 PM on November 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


One Crazy Trick: You won't believe how this reporter turned not buying a barrel of oil into a story about buying a barrel of oil!
posted by odinsdream at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


The article had an interesting premise to it even if it didn't get all the way there. It would have been cooler if she had at least gotten to see a barrel of oil.

We once got a box of core samples from a well in Alaska shipped to our office. They stank so bad

Aw, I kind of like the slight hint of H2S - but I admit I've spent hours describing core and have gotten used to it. The nose test is a quick way to tell if organic material is/was present in rock - H2S is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of organic material, which is why it's often such a deadly killer in mines or other areas where there's a lot of coal. But it can be really cool to sniff some sandstone and know (beyond oil staining) that oil has migrated through it just by the smell.

But it is fucking scary. I know people who have died of sour gas exposure. One terrifyingly fell into a pit of oil slush that was only a few feet deep and was overcome by the accumulated gases and drowned. The thing about H2S is that as long as you're smelling the rotten eggs smell then it's at low enough quantities - <30 ppm - that it's not dangerous (for short term exposure). (You can smell it at less than 1 ppm.) When it's getting into a kind of rotten body smell - kind of this sick-sweet smell - then you're in trouble, at about 30 ppm. Now you're getting into serious respiratory problems. Once you can't smell it - above 100 ppm - you're either in convulsions and possible death or above 300 ppm just dead. At high concentrations it only takes one breath and that's it.

I'm glad, though, that it's not a super danger all the time. Although there's always a chance of H2S - aka sour gas - on all oil/gas wells it's usually known when it presents a high amount of danger and then you have to carry a gas mask around instead of the masks hanging on the wall. Few things are as scary as hearing the sour gas alarm go off when it's not a drill, though, because not only is it super toxic it's also flammable as hell. Hearing that alarm is one of the few things that can turn my legs into jelly.
posted by barchan at 4:35 PM on November 4, 2015 [26 favorites]


Jesus Christ, barchan, that's fucking terrifying.
posted by brennen at 4:56 PM on November 4, 2015


I am a connoisseur of sirens, and for my money it has never gotten more haunting than the classic Carter. The Chicago tornado one is just bizarre.

That sound in the Alien trailer is pretty close, though. Imagine turning that into a warning siren.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:11 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


So when you see those pictures of the oil workers who are covered in oil (it usually shows them grinning and trying to hold some metal object in the ground), isn't that just ridiculously dangerous for them given how toxic it is? Or is that not oil they're covered in?
posted by pravit at 5:40 PM on November 4, 2015


Blue collar workers always get the shaft when it comes to toxic exposure. It was worse pre-1970s but it's still true today.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:53 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Or is that not oil they're covered in?"

That's usually drilling mud - not as toxic as oil but still nasty stuff in its own right. Here is an MSDS (materials safety data sheet) for heavy crude - you really don't want a barrel of this stuff in your living room.
Barchan is right though - when I still worked offshore I was pretty blase about fire and evacuation alarms but an h2s alarm was usually terrifying. It's bad stuff.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:58 PM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


pravit: A lot of times when you see oil workers covered in something it's some kind of drilling fluid. A lot of drilling fluid is just water and clay based, although you can get oil based which is nasty. Most of the drilling is through rock - you don't drill through entire reservoirs of oil. And a lot of the dirt/fluids also comes from just operating the drilling equipment, which needs lubricants and diesel, etc. to run.

Really, when it comes to exposure gases from all the operating equipment are probably the most toxic thing around. I can't speak for the dangers of refineries, however.
posted by barchan at 5:59 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Chicago tornado one is just bizarre.

(and...derail)

Meet the Federal Signal Modulator 2 siren. If you listen to the Alternate Wail clip, you'll hear the tone they use in Chicago.

Only about 1/3rd of the sirens in the city are Modulator 2, the rest are 2001 series sirens, which operate on very low power and have very long reach. They use the Modulators downtown because they needed something that would grab your attention, even if hear faintly, because of all the buildings.

(and...rerail)

Yeah, H2S is nasty stuff, and there's a lot more nasty in crude oil.
posted by eriko at 6:00 PM on November 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


ah, thatwhichfalls, jinx
posted by barchan at 6:01 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have about a teaspoon of (very nice looking straw colored) oil in a box in a storage unit in Oklahoma. It sat on my desk for some years before I moved. It is sealed in a lucite "barrel" with a teardrop shaped internal cavity that commemorates a particular pipeline company's 10 millionth or 100 millionth or somesuch barrel shipped. Supposedly the oil within is a small sample of that actual barrel.

(Oil) Pipeline companies can do that, BTW. You aren't guaranteed to get exactly what you put in, just something close to it, much less exactly the same amount. They also are contractually allowed to keep the mixed product that is found between different shipments, which they then separate into its constituent parts and sell on the open market for a bit of extra cash.

The process is less interesting for refined product or natural gas pipelines, since there is less variation in what is transported.
posted by wierdo at 6:11 PM on November 4, 2015


Meet the Federal Signal Modulator 2 siren. If you listen to the Alternate Wail clip, you'll hear the tone they use in Chicago.

Bookmarked for whenever I need to get my cat out of my lap
posted by theodolite at 6:22 PM on November 4, 2015


Steely-eyed Missile Man: I am a connoisseur of sirens, and for my money it has never gotten more haunting than the classic Carter

Which for me growing up was always the "is it a new month already?" sound.
posted by traveler_ at 7:03 PM on November 4, 2015


All those scenes in Herzog's Lessons of Darkness, where the workers are trying to extinguish the gushing Kuwaiti oil wells (e.g. here)--how are they not all dead instantly, especially if all that oil is getting atomized as it gushes out? That's crude oil, is it not?
posted by Dr. Send at 7:14 PM on November 4, 2015


Meet the Federal Signal Modulator 2 siren. If you listen to the Alternate Wail clip, you'll hear the tone they use in Chicago.

If you're a chiptune artist that plays concerts and your goal doesn't involve getting one of these you need to reevaluate your career.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:12 PM on November 4, 2015


> Hydrogen Sulfide toxicity is no joke.

Interesting Wikipedia article. However, I think you missed an opportunity by linking to the "Toxicity" section. You could have linked to the "Mass extinctions" section.
...Hydrogen sulfide toxicity: super seriously definitely not a joke.
posted by wwwwolf at 2:47 AM on November 5, 2015


I have about a teaspoon of (very nice looking straw colored) oil in a box in a storage unit in Oklahoma. It sat on my desk for some years before I moved. It is sealed in a lucite "barrel" with a teardrop shaped internal cavity that commemorates a particular pipeline company's 10 millionth or 100 millionth or somesuch barrel shipped. Supposedly the oil within is a small sample of that actual barrel.

I have one of them from 2006 or so.
It was honey yellow oil (52API as I recall).
Last time I saw it it was honey brown.
Either there is a flaw in the lucite, or something's going on chemically.
posted by Mezentian at 3:50 AM on November 5, 2015


Chavenet: I love that DailyWTF.
posted by uberchet at 7:09 AM on November 5, 2015


Perhaps an easier way to obtain crude may be to bottle it yourself as it bubbles up from the ground. I did that many years ago - it was a very messy area, it took some care not to get it on me. The bore (if it was one) was not commercially viable but had enough pressure to maintain a small stream, so the crude was free to whoever could be bothered to collect some. The locals would often collect some as they needed it and use it for treating timber, etc. I'm not sure if anyone was burning it. (It wasn't really the kind of region where oil furnaces were a thing.)

Good to know that H2S deserves more respect than I previously gave it...
posted by anonymisc at 7:14 PM on November 8, 2015


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