If it weren’t for the discovery of crude oil, whales would have been hunted to extinction for blubber. We’ve all heard the argument, and it makes sense from this perspective: For a time, whale fat was the dominant fuel for lamps and material for candles because it was less smelly than tallow and created less smoke. Then, kerosene came on the scene and rendered whale fat obsolete. One point for the oil industry and one point for the whales.

However, reality is rarely linear or black and white. 

And in this case, the dueling realities both contain elements of truth regarding the contribution of the oil industry to the preservation of whales, some species of which were hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century.

The purveyors of each reality think only in partisan thoughts and of oil only in terms of good versus evil, never a gray moment between.

The Good Oil Argument

The 19th century in America was the century of the whale. The cetaceans were a source of oil for lighting but also oil that was used as lubricant in trains. Whale oil was also used for heating, for soap, and for paints and varnishes. It was a truly versatile raw material.

To satisfy the booming demand for whale oil, a whaling industry grew and thrived. According to records, the whaling fleet in America totaled 392 vessels in 1833 and this expanded to 735 vessels by 1846. These whaling ships accounted for 80 percent of the world’s whaling fleet.

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The annual output of sperm oil (rendered fat from the nose of the sperm whale that made the best candles) averaged 4-5 million gallons with another 6-10 million gallons of “train oil” also produced on an annual basis. America wanted whale oil and the industry provided it. Until the 1850s. Related: Musk: Tesla Truck Will Crush The Competition

From 735 whaling ships in 1846, the American fleet went down to just 39 by 1876. The reason had a name and this name was kerosene. A Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner discovered in the 1840s a way to make kerosene, which was much cheaper than other lighting fuels available at the time. It was easy and quick to produce. At the time, kerosene was derived from coal.

Just a decade later, in 1859, the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, marking the beginning of the oil industry. The man who many credit with the saving of the whales almost singlehandedly was John D. Rockefeller, who accurately noted there was too much money being spent on pumping oil out of the ground and not enough on processing it.

Rockefeller started with several kerosene refineries that later evolved into Standard Oil, and soon, the growing population of the United States had access to cheap kerosene, and demand for whale oil dropped and eventually vanished. Just as well, since by that time, several whale species were already under threat of extinction from overhunting.

The Bad Oil Argument

Yes, the rise of oil-derived kerosene and the start of the demise of the whaling industry in the United States more or less coincided, but there was no strong causal link between the two. The avoidance of whale species extinction was simply the result of a favorable combination of factors.

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For one thing, whale oil prices were rising and at one point, right after the Civil War, it was only affordable to the wealthiest segment of American society. This was in the early days of the petroleum industry. Standard Oil had yet to claim 90 percent of the market, and kerosene simply happened to have been invented at the right moment to offer a cheaper alternative to costly whale oil. The fact that “coal oil” as people called it back then was taxed at much lower rates than some of the other lighting fuels available on the market also helped. Related: Is The Aramco IPO The Ultimate Pump And Dump?

Whale oil, according to the proponents of this argument, was never really competitive. By the time kerosene appeared on the scene, demand was already in decline because of its price and the emergence of other alternatives based on alcohol. Of course, electricity took over before the end of the 19th century, rendering most of these alternatives to whale oil as obsolete as whale oil itself.

There are some in the anti-oil camp who acknowledge the contribution of the oil industry to the saving of the whales. The oil industry did not do it on purpose, of course. Oil drillers were after profits, not the saving of a species. Yet in that rush for profits they did come up with a cheaper and better alternative to costly whale oil, undoubtedly dealing a severe blow to demand for the latter.

And then there are those who point to the fact that the rise of petroleum as raw material for engine fuels gave rise to modern whaling, which resulted in more whales being killed in the 20th century than in all the history of whaling up till then. This argument is difficult to refute. Oil indeed marked the beginning of a technological race that has brought us where we are now and whose driver was the internal combustion engine.

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Whether the discovery of crude oil did more bad than good to not just the whales but the planet and humankind in general is still open for debate regardless of what the most radical pro- and anti-oil schools of thought say. Yet even if the rise of kerosene as an alternative to whale oil was nothing but a coincidence, a good, environmentally positive coincidence.

By Irina Slav for

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