Did Oil Save the Whales? What Whales Should Teach Us About the Future of Energy

What if oil tanker trucks had legs? Imagine millions of great lumbering beasts with bellies of black gold, gathered in roving herds on an endless frontier. An inexhaustible supply of crude oil just walking across the grasslands waiting for those with the courage and expertise to go out and take it. Each animal worth tens of thousands of dollars, the beasts are chased down by brave men with fortunes in their dreams. Teams of charging horses raise clouds of dust as hollering men lean from speeding wagons to fire bullets and spears into the fleeing giants. A frontier town becomes a boom town; the new epicenter of an energy economy based on the capture, processing, delivery, sale, and resale of beast oil. Steam trains deliver the black stuff to consumers in the old world and new, always clamoring for more of the stuff, for heating, lighting, and industrial applications.

Believe it or not as little as 160 years ago, the world was living through this exact bio-steam-punk existence. Only instead the oil-filled beasts were found not on the frontier, but in the endless oceans. Sophisticated wooden ships sailed waters from the arctic to antarctic, and from Brazil to Africa in search of whales and the oil in their bellies. Places like New Bedford, Massachusetts, became the hub of an energy economy which delivered the oil all over the world. Next time you go to flip on a light switch, take a moment to appreciate that just a century and a half ago, people all over the world were using the rendered fat of giant ocean-dwelling mammals in order to light their homes!

Whale oil was used in staggering quantities, mostly for use in illumination, but also other industrial applications such as soap production were common. Whale oil was so popular, by the mid 1850’s tens of thousands of whales were being slaughtered for whale oil each year. Whale oil was a booming industry, but it was also becoming more and more difficult to find enough whales, as those waters near the east coast of the United States had rapidly become depleted. The price of whale oil was on the rise, hitting a high of between $1.30 and $2.50 a gallon (the equivalent of ~$37 to $71/gallon in 2015 dollars).

It was around this time that a Canadian chemist by the name of Abraham Gresener had identified a means to derive liquid kerosene from coal, oil or bitumin. Kerosene burned more cleanly and was much cheaper than whale oil, at ~60cents/gallon. The superior quality and price of kerosene as an illuminant marked the beginning of the age of oil power and a steady decline in the whale oil industry.

Thus, oil saved the whales… or so the story goes.

But of course, it’s not so simple.

This article from PBS Newshour lays out some of the interesting complexity surrounding the transition from whale oil to kerosene for lighting homes and businesses in the mid 19th century. In addition to kerosene and whale oil, another popular fuel for illumination called camphene was made up from a mixture of alcohol (distilled as normal) and turpentine (a pine tree extract).

By all accounts, camphene was by far the leading lamp fuel.
In 1862, a tax of $2.00 a gallon was imposed on beverage alcohol and camphene was forced off the market. Since the Pennsylvania oil fields were in the process of opening, the whales really had nothing to do with the emergence of the kerosene industry.

Thus, it seems that by imposing an inordinately high tax on drinking alcohol, the US government inadvertently forced a real competitor for kerosene off the market. Additionally, the US civil war put a strain on both the whale oil industry, as ships were diverted to military use, and the turpentine industry, as much of the southern pine forests were cut off from market, allowing the emerging Pennsylvania petroleum industry to flourish.

While this serves as an interesting side story about the involvement of external factors in technological turnover, the real problem with the “oil saved the whales” story is that the whale hunting industry didn’t die until long after kerosene was already replaced by the electric light bulb as the illuminant of choice. In fact, the peak of whale hunting for many species didn’t happen until the 1960’s (ref)! That’s right, the whale hunting industry was very much alive and well as little as 50 years ago.

While the price of whale oil never again hit the kinds of peaks that were seen in the 1850’s, the technology of oil powered ships allowed for increasingly economical extraction of whale products throughout the 20th century. Whales were a cheap source of high-quality animal fat, meat and bones, and the further ships went, the more whales they found and as long as they could turn a profit by harvesting whales, they would. While running out of whales might have eventually stopped the whale hunting, it was actually an international backlash against the hunt, and eventual international regulation which put a stop to the industrial scale extraction of whales. We decided that we didn’t want to or need to hunt whales any more, and so we put a stop to it (for the most part).

The story of whale oil is as complex and nuanced as any story of technological turnover and societal progress. The story of technological change is never a neat and tidy process because things just never happen in a vacuum. Seemingly innocuous or irrelevant factors like a new tax on drink beverages, or the outbreak of civil war can end up having huge consequences on what technologies are adopted and what direction we move as a society. Still I think it puts a powerful point on the story that in the end it was a ground level moral shift and international regulation that really put a stop to whale hunting.

Given the opportunity and education, we can collectively make the right choice.

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