Hacked Oil Pipeline Prompts Look at History of Petroleum Industry

$5 million ransomware slowed gas supply to east coast

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Ransomware hackers seeking $5 million stopped a major oil pipeline. The attack left the Southeast in dire straits seeking gasoline for cars and other vehicles. The modern history of petroleum explains how we got here.

Oil pump silhouettes against blue sky
Photo By zhengzaishuru / Shutterstock

A 5,500-mile oil pipeline running gasoline and jet fuel from Houston to New York was shut down by hackers seeking a $5 million ransom. As a result, panicked vehicle owners flocked to gas stations and gas prices rose. The operator of the pipeline, Colonial Pipeline, paid the ransom and resumed operations.

If this incident sounds familiar, there’s good reason. In January, a cyberattack on the public and private sectors in the United States led Wondrium Daily to report on the philosophy that these crimes against infrastructure may be inevitable, and that systems may focus on reacting to them rather than building a “hackproof” system.

How did petroleum get so prevalent? In his video series The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained, Dr. Michael E. Wysession, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said America’s oil industry started over 170 years ago with one young chemist.

If I Say I’m an Oil Man, You’ll Agree

“The modern history of petroleum began in 1847, when the Scottish chemist James Young figured out how to distill petroleum into its multiple forms: lamp oil, kerosene, lubricating oil, and paraffin wax,” Dr. Wysession said. “The petroleum industry was born, which meant, among other things, that we no longer had to kill so many whales for lamp oil.

“In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled successfully for oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and oil booms set off all over the world—actually, the first big one was in Ontario, Canada.”

The next major event in the oil industry took place in 1870, when John D. Rockefeller started Standard Oil in Cleveland. Standard soon set several world records: It became the largest oil refinery in the world and both the first and largest multinational corporation in the world. Meanwhile, Rockefeller became the world’s richest man. It took a 1911 Supreme Court ruling that Standard Oil was a monopoly just to break it into smaller pieces.

Demand for Oil—Hot Commodity

“In terms of usefulness, what coal did for electricity, petroleum did for just about everything else, especially anything that moved—cars, and trucks, and planes, and tanks,” Dr. Wysession said. “And, increasingly, petroleum became the critical factor in politics and wars.”

According to Dr. Wysession, some scholars have argued that part of the reason the Allies fared better in World War II was because of access to oil. Germany didn’t have the same access, and apparently the failed German invasion of Russia was largely plotted because of oil reserves in what is now Azerbaijan.

“The U.S. was the major world producer of oil through the mid-20th century, which largely allowed it to become the world’s most powerful nation,” Dr. Wysession said. “But U.S. production peaked in 1971, and oil production shifted to the Middle East and Russia. Much of the world’s attention has been focused on the Middle East ever since.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily