Small Oil

Mark Ainscow
2 min readSep 3, 2018

As I drove north east on State Route 28 from Pittsburgh, a low cloud hung over the hills. I turned north and drove aimlessly through those Pennsylvania backroads, along the spine of undulating Appalachia. It reminded me of Yorkshire but in a nice way. Every once in a while, I’d notice a tiny little oil rig on the side of the road. Those nodding donkey ones — what you see in Dallas. But they were tiny, like no more than eight feet tall. Over the space of an hour, I must have seen ten of them. So, I decided to pull over and inspect. It didn’t seem to be working — meaning, it wasn’t moving. It looked new-ish — it wasn’t rusted, nicely painted, and fresh tire tracks around the rig hinted to me that it was still functional. There was some kind of collection tank adjacent to the rig, maybe the pumps operated on a timer or something. I took a couple of photos and hit the road again.

A quick Google search revealed that Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil is actually a thing and there is a small oil industry in Pennsylvania. Small Oil vs. Big Oil, get it? Probably anybody from Bradford, Pennsylvania knows this already. (Chauncey I’m looking at you, here). It’s a particularly sweet crude (meaning it has very low sulfur) and lends itself to the production of varnish and plastics. Small Oil, basically the independent oil producers, represented by the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil Coalition, sell to refiners. As I write this, Pennsylvania Sweet Crude sells for $69.20 per barrel. Just six years ago, the price of sweet crude was around $100 per barrel, and these mini rigs popped up at the rate of about 3,000 per year. It was a second mini-boom in Pennsylvania. However, the price of crude fell back to around $40 per barrel a couple of years ago, and the new rigs stopped.

Pennsylvania is no stranger to oil. In the late 1800’s, rock oil was discovered in Titusville. It was the first time oil was extracted from the ground with a dedicated machine. It was, in essence, the invention of the oil rig. During those two decades, Pennsylvania provided half the world’s oil.


But not anymore, sadly. Or not…

Mark Ainscow

Dad/Husband/UXer/Photographer/Brit/Yank/BWFC/Red Sox — Taker of photos and writer of a few words to surround them.