The 42 Gallon Barrel [History]

Aug 25, 2007 | Posted in Essays, Progress

As crude prices hit record highs, questions arise over barrel measurement [history.]... The price tag hangs on a 42-gallon of [oil] barrel, an odd and archaic vessel in this age of modern conveyances.

Charles Pratt and Co. Refinery

Charles Pratt & Co. Refinery

Why did we start using 'barrels' of crude oil? Crude oil prices and production figures always refer to barrels of oil, even though oil is transported now via pipelines and tankers.
There's no such thing anymore as a barrel-laden river barge or Teamster's wagon. Still, the barrel designation continues to be used.

So what is a barrel? A barrel contains 42 gallons, or 34.97 imperial gallons.

The 42 gallons became the standard measurement in the early days of oil. As oil flowed fast and furious from hastily drilled wells in the early oil days along Oil Creek, any type of container, whether a wash basin or a whiskey tub, was pressed into service to collect and ship oil.

While the sizes differed, they were all referred to as barrels. It was only by chance that the most common size container was a 40-gallon barrel normally used to ship spirits, salt, food and produce.

Oil Creek Locomotive - Rouseville

Oil Creek Locomotive - Rouseville

Oil tax
Toward the end of the Civil War, the federal government tried to standardize the oil industry's barrel measurement. The reason: The government needed money to press the war effort so it decided to levy taxes on a barrel of oil. The tax was tied to the measurement - a $1 tax on each barrel of petroleum of 45 gallons or less, and an additional $1 tax on any container larger than that.

Standard measurement
But it would take an industry-wide effort to really standardize the trade, and that occurred in 1866. More than two dozen leading oil producing companies agreed to sell crude oil "by the gallon only" rather than by the odd barrel or tin drum or any other package. "An allowance of two gallons will be made on the gauge of each and every 40 gallons in favor of the buyer," agreed the sellers. And those gallons would be contained in a barrel capable of holding 42 gallons.

A decade later, a Council of Producers formally accepted the 42-gallon standard as a unit of measure. It has remained at that mark since then.

Heisman Barrelworks - Titusville, PA

Heisman Barrelworks - Titusville

The "bbl" Anecdotal information suggests that "bbl," a strange abbreviation for barrel, relates to color. That information was gleaned from "Standard Oil Co.," a book published in 1955 by oil historian Paul H. Giddens, a familiar visitor to the Oil Creek Valley. Giddens writes that large quantities of wooden barrels were needed on a constant basis to ship various refined petroleum products from refineries.

Kerosene, said Giddens, was shipped in blue painted barrels while gasoline was in red painted barrels. In the early oil industry, kerosene was the refined product of choice. That suggests "bbl" means "blue-barrel."

What it's worth
The 42-gallon barrel of oil converts, for energy purposes, to these:
- 5,800,000BTU (British Thermal Unit) of energy
- 5,614 cubic feet of natural gas
- 0.22 ton of bituminous coal

One cubic foot of natural gas equals:
- 1,030BTU of energy 0.000178 barrel of oil
- 0.00004 ton of bituminous coal

One short ton (2,000 pounds) of bituminous coal equals:
- 26,200,000BTU of energy
- 4.52 barrels of crude oil
- 25,314 cubic feet of natural gas

Reprinted with permission from…

JUDITH O. ETZEL, Staff writer. 2007. The Derrick. Published by Venango News.

Courtesy of The Derrick and Venango News.