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A quick drilling in oil

The Price of Oil is a season of factual dramas on Radio 4. We bring you nine events exploring the history of oil - and the price we've paid for it.

1. ‘Cooking’ creatures

Crude oil is created over millions of years from the remains of microscopic creatures and plants. Covered by successive layers of mud and sand, the organisms slowly ‘cook’ with the rising pressure and temperature and become the treacly, dark substance we recognise as oil.

2. Edwin rocks up

Oil was drilled for the first time in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Prospector Edwin Drake arrived in town with a mission to extract the underground oil that had only seeped out of rocks until then. Locals laughed him off as ‘Crazy Drake’, but changed their tune when his success triggered the state’s oil boom.

3. But we shook on it…

Anglo-Persian Oil – later to become BP – found early fortune on the strength of a 1901 handshake with the Shah of Persia that granted it exclusive rights to prospect for crude in the country for 60 years. In 1951, Prime Minister Mossadeq, of what by then had become Iran, fed up that the Brits were raking it in from his country’s resources, nationalised the oil industry and sent British workers packing.

4. OPEC siege

In 1975, Venezuelan militant Illich Ramirez Sanchez (or ‘Carlos the Jackal’ as he was dubbed by British media) led an attack on a meeting of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) ministers in Vienna. Under the name ‘Arm of the Arab Revolution’, the self-styled revolutionaries killed three people and took more than 60 hostages – all later released

5. Field of dreams

North Sea Oil - a key battleground before the Scottish Referendum – turned 40 in 2015. The first of its 43bn barrels of crude was pumped off the north-east coast of Scotland in 1975, prior to which the UK had to import all its supplies. It has swollen treasury coffers by more than £330bn in taxes and employs around 450,000 people, and there are still up to 24bn barrels in untapped reserves.

6. Preserving corpses, painting lips

Ancient civilisations used crude oil to waterproof boats, preserve corpses and for medicinal purposes. The modern population call on crude to do anything from heat our homes and fuel our cars to carpet our floors and colour our lips. It is used to make products ranging from plastic and fertiliser to perfume and bubble gum.

7. America first

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of oil, guzzling 19m barrels of the stuff every day – most in refined forms like gas and diesel. It produces more oil than any other country – its largest oil field is in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay from where billions of barrels of oil are piped south every day from the wells discovered in the 1960s. The US also imports the most oil to help satisfy its thirst.

8. Biggest disaster

A 2010 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico caused the biggest oil spill in history, with an estimated 4.9m barrels spewed into the sea. 11 workers died in the disaster, which also threatened wildlife, fishing and tourism in the region. It took five months to complete the sealing of the ruptured well.

9. Dirty dealing

Dirtiest oil deal? Few can challenge JR Ewing, who knowingly sold off his company’s offshore leases in Asia the day before the wells were nationalised, ruining investors. The ruthless Texan oil tycoon was the fictional star of long-running US drama Dallas, of course, with the oil industry providing a colourful backdrop to the Ewing family’s business and personal shenanigans.

The Price of Oil is a season of factual dramas exploring the history of oil - and the price we've paid for it.