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The 153-year-old oil well that produces nonstop in boom and bust

TITUSVILLE, Pa. – About 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, a pothole-pocked dirt road along the side of a warehouse leads to a solitary oil well, undisturbed by the recent plunge in crude prices.

McClintock No. 1, the world’s oldest continually producing oil well, is still going after 153 years, quietly churning out about 1/10 of a barrel each day from a small spot in a clearing of trees.

Crude bubbles up from this 625-foot chasm regardless of the swings in oil prices, which have slid 30 percent in the past five months amid a glut in global supply.

On its best days, McClintock yielded about 175 barrels. It’s survived through all the industry’s highs and lows, from busts that sent prices below $1 per barrel during the Great Depression to booms that sent them over $140 in 2008.

The well’s output today is sold to a fuel company to make motor oil, but that’s not really why it’s still in operation.

“It’s history,” said Susan Beates, the 54-year-old curator and historian at the Drake Well Museum, an institution in Titusville that operates the well for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “It’s definitely not economically viable right now. It’s about the status.”

The McClintock well, originally drilled for lamp kerosene, is a remnant of an era long gone. Before automobiles had been invented. Before the United States grew dependent on gasoline for transportation. Before domestic oil production rose to almost 9 million barrels a day, only to drop to less than half that and then stage a comeback to reach 9.06 million this month.

In the century and a half that McClintock has run, two certainties have come to light, Beates said. One, nobody knows where oil prices are going and, two, nobody knows where U.S. oil production will peak, she said.

“Oil prices will and have always been up and down,” said Beates, wearing spectacles and a sweater she knit herself. “When we had wells coming online just as the Civil War was starting, what do you think happened to prices then? They plummeted.

“In 1861, our first exports went to Europe, and prices went up. Then the federal government starts taxing a dollar a barrel to fund the Union war and prices go back down.”

U.S. oil production has proven just as difficult to peg as prices, Beates said.

Ten years ago, the Energy Information Administration was estimating that domestic output would slide to 4.1 million barrels a day in 2025. Today, it’s forecasting 8.68 million as drillers use a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to pull record volumes of crude out of shale formations.

On Oct. 29, Beates was asked to draw on her 16 years of studying the history of oil to come up with an educated guess on where the price of U.S. crude will be the next day. Without missing a beat, she answered, “It will be different.”