News & Politics

How Oil Saves the Whales (and May Save Us All)

(Image by Laura Upshaw from Pixabay)

Google the phrase “fossil fuels are killing us.” The search returns are a collection of wild alarmist claims, including everything from pollution is killing us to storms are killing us to angry mother earth is killing us because it hates us now.

Before the actual COVID-19 pandemic was declared, a European team declared air pollution a “pandemic” that’s killing 8.8 million people a year. Environmental factors such as air quality don’t fit the definition of pandemic, which is a widespread disease, but never mind that. Expanding definitions are usually attempts to expand government power, such as the CDC’s imperial march into gun control over the past decade or so. The Democrats are running on some variation on the theme, and say they will ban fracking and even fossil fuels themselves if they win, while claiming they’re the party of science.

For years before the actual pandemic, fracking was keeping energy costs low and keeping the lights and the medical monitors on in just about every hospital in the country if not the world. Fracking, which has been around and proven safe for fifty years, was saving lives. But ok, try and ban it because reasons.

Meanwhile in reality, the pre-modern human lifespan was around 30 years. Now, in our supposedly polluted, oil-soaked industrial world, the average lifespan has shot up to more than 70 years. The world’s population has topped 7 billion and is growing. So…how is our use of fossil fuels killing us, exactly, when there are more of us now and we’re living longer than ever before? And when deaths from natural disasters, some of which are supposedly caused by climate change, have decreased by about 97% over the last 100 years?

COVID-19 didn’t come from using fossil fuels. It may have come from old-school wet markets.

Not only are we living longer than ever while we’re using more fossil fuels than ever (and we have more proven reserves than ever), we’re now using petroleum and its by-products for everything from energy to medical devices and pharmaceuticals, to fabrics and plastics. And the rise of fossil fuels has demonstrably saved the whales the anti-fossil fuel activists claim to love.

History of Light

In 1859, America was on the eve of civil war. Industrialization had arrived, and with it the beginnings of mechanized warfare, mass cultivation and mass production. Our cities were growing and their needs were growing too. We needed power for our industries and we needed light for so many things.

The hunting and killing of whales, mainly right whales, had been around for thousands of years and was big business. Whaling fleets crisscrossed the world’s oceans seeking out whales to slaughter and bring back to the people on land. Whaling was America’s 5th largest industry in 1859. In 1853 alone, whalers killed 8,000 whales, threatening them with extinction. The global whaling industry spawned tycoons with mansions and their own fleets of ships, private navies built to find and kill these gigantic creatures.

Whaling was dangerous and expensive, as you needed ships and crews, but whales provided two major products: meat and oil. Meat could be gotten much more easily by ranching cattle, raising chickens and fishing for smaller sea creatures closer to shore, animals less likely to crush and sink the ships used to hunt them. But whale oil was practically irreplaceable. In 19th-century America, whale oil meant indoor light.

Humans have always had the need to light the night around us. Predatory animals see better in the dark than we do. Those same animals tend to fear fire and light. Lighting the night extends the day, extending hunting time and extending the time humans can use to do things.

We take indoor light for granted now, but in ages prior to ours, night light was far less common though it was needed. It meant keeping creatures and criminals at bay. It meant being able to study books at night, and it meant being able to write your thoughts down after sunset too. Light after darkness meant safety and science and progress.

Fuel for Progress

The means of lighting the night have changed over time. Oversimplifying things a bit, first we burned dung or wood. Ancient humans would chop down every tree around to support their construction and energy needs.

The Chinese are believed to have discovered and first used coal for fires about 3000 to 5000 years ago. Everyone else was still using wood or oils derived from wood or dung. In what became the United States, coal was discovered in 1679 and it and oil made from it soon became the fuel of choice.

Coal was a much better fuel than wood. It burned longer, it burned hotter and it burned more reliably. It was lighter than wood, so it was easier to transport. And as far as anyone knew, there was enough coal underground to burn forever. All we had to do was dig it up. Coal and coal oil was cheap but it was also dirty.

Like whale oil, coal created its own economy and its own classes of tycoons and workers, mansions and shacks. Coal allowed us to make stronger metals, giving rise to taller buildings, stronger ships and the railroads.

Coal saved the trees that we had been cutting down to burn to cook our food and light our nights. And as early as the late 18th century, whale oil began to displace coal for indoor lighting.

Whale oil was not the only source of fuel to burn lamps at night, but it was one of the best. There was also burning oil or camphene, which was made from trees and a mix of chemicals. Whale oil was more expensive but considered better as it was less likely to explode and set your whole house on fire. It was less smelly and burned better than oil derived from animal fat. It was less sooty than coal oil. Whale oil was expensive, at about $2 or more a gallon in the 19th-century economy, but it lit up the night.

And so whaling was big business right up until 1859. The world’s whale population was dwindling and there was a rising consciousness that these majestic creatures were more than mere things to burn. And as whales became more scarce, their oil became more expensive. Whaling became a less viable business, based on the economics.

Black Gold

In 1859, the creation of a different fuel changed the game. That was kerosene, and it was made from the fossil fuel oil we think of today. That oil had been known to exist for thousands of years but had not been discovered in sufficient quantities to spawn an industry. Slicks had been spotted in the oceans. Ancient peoples used it to patch up their boats. But it wasn’t able to power industry and change the world at scale. The invention of kerosene changed that. Not only was kerosene better than whale oil for most uses, it was also a lot cheaper and the discovery of more oil deposits in Pennsylvania, Texas and other states made that fuel less expensive while whale oil’s price was rising. You could buy about three gallons of kerosene for the price of one gallon of whale oil. Kerosene was the more affordable fuel and it won out. To be sure, government policies had a say, but economics was the real driver. Spindletop popped in January 1901, launching the oil age for good. The last American whaler set sail in 1927. The populations of many whale species have bounced back. Many species, including right whales, are still endangered but instead of hunting them, we now protect them.

Whales Saved

So the rise of fossil fuel oil helped save the whales. It allowed us to electrify the world. Petroleum powers your computer and many of the components are made from it, too. You’re probably wearing something that was made from fossil fuels and unless you’re seeing by candle or the fireplace at night, you’re burning dead dinosaurs. Even electric cars are powered mostly by oil, coal or natural gas, with a percentage of nuclear power in the mix.

And the world population has gone up from about 1.2 billion in 1850 to 7.7 billion in 2020. Petroleum became a major world thing in 1859. If fossil fuels are “killing us,” it’s difficult to see how or where.

Something may someday displace fossil fuel oil as our primary energy source. Maybe it will be cleaner for the air, but it will certainly dirty up something else. Economics will drive that change, not any government edict. We will turn to a fuel source that is more reliable and affordable than fossil fuels, if one exists. And whatever that next fuel source turns out to be, there will be no free lunch. Every fuel source requires something, either chemicals or materials, that have to be removed from the ground and re-purposed for our use. Windmills require steel and fiberglass, which require energy to produce, and plastics to coat the wires. Solar panels require metals and rare earth minerals. Both require batteries, which require chemicals. Where those things are located, under the ground and in which countries, who discovers them and who extracts them, will shape politics and the balance of power of the future.

For now, we’re dealing with the declared COVID-19 pandemic. How are we going to create medical devices from syringes to tubes and blood pressure monitors, how will we encase them in plastics, how will we secure them in cars and trucks and aircraft, and how are we going to move devices, drugs and patients to where we need them to be?

Petroleum and its by-products make all of this possible.

Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, producer, author, Texan, and veteran with experience in energy, space, and military policy and historic preservation.