The Atlantic

Oil Barrels Aren't Real Anymore

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

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