Google Earth Exercise: Chapter 14

The Geography of Oil

As described in the text, oil is a vital resource in the global economy. A key benefit of Google Earth is the multitude of user-generated content. In this exercise, we will explore data created by users who are familiar with the oil and gas industry. Examine the map of oil pipelines, published by the Centre for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University, and a community-generated map of refining capacity, to understand how oil is distributed and how the global distribution of this commodity and our dependence on it has shaped the landscape.

The task: In Google Earth, use the oil pipelines layer to determine where extraction, processing, and distribution facilities are located.

Step 1: Open the chapter14.kmz file. Enable the borders and labels layer and the roads layer. Examine the pattern of pipelines and refining facilities in North America.

Question 1: What is the spatial pattern of pipelines in the United States of America? What does this pattern suggest of the destination of oil?

Question 2: Considering topography, does the pipeline infrastructure follow any particular physical features?

Question 3: The coast of the Gulf of Mexico supports a high density of refining capacity. Where does the crude oil supply originate? Are there any reasons why this may change in the future?

Step 2: Navigate to Saudi Arabia and North Africa.

Question 4: Contrast the pipeline infrastructure Saudi Arabia and North Africa to Europe or North America.

When you have answered the four questions above, scroll to the bottom of the page to check your answers.


Question 1: The broad pattern is one of moving oil resources from the coast inland. The United States has large oil reserves in offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil is carried via pipelines, which are expensive to construct and represent a long-term commitment to a particular route and associated infrastructure. Refineries are concentrated along the coast, and the pipelines move oil to customers inland.

Question 2:

The pipeline infrastructure generally follows a path of least resistance traversing the continent through the Great Plains where the land is flat and pipelines are easy to construct. There are few pipelines to the Pacific coast due to the difficulty and expense of traversing the Rocky Mountains. Pipelines also follow the Mississippi River, which is used to transport refined and crude oil products by barge.

Question 3: Oil typically flows north from these refineries. The refining capacity here is ample and supports much of the United States’ oil demands. Due to growing production capacity in the Alberta Oil Sands, there are proposals to build additional pipeline capacity to carry oil south to these facilities as Gulf production declines. An example of this is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Question 4: Most of these pipelines are short and follow a direct route to refining facilities on the coast. Unlike Europe or North America, there is not a dense network of internal pipelines serving the local population. This suggests an oil economy geared to export as well as low domestic demand for the resource. Note that both North America and Europe have extensive inland refining facilities located closer to markets, while the Middle East’s coastal infrastructure serves a predominantly foreign market.