Running Out of Whales

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Running Out of Whales

The flickering light of a fireplace or wood stove isn’t great for reading in a dark Pennsylvania winter, so people have burned many other things for light. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the US, wealthy early European settlers preferred burning whale oil, which didn’t stink like tallow candles, and didn’t blow up like the alcohol-turpentine mixture known as camphene. At its peak, the Yankee whaling fleet had 10,000 sailors on ships, scouring the far reaches of the ocean for whales to supply oil. Populations of the main species pursued by the Yankee whalers dropped precipitously, and the Yankee production of whale oil followed, with prices rising greatly, from a low that would be about $7/gallon today, to a peak of almost $25/gallon. The total amount of whale oil collected by the Yankee whalers in the 1800s is roughly the same as the total amount of oil (petroleum) imported by the United States in a week—if we hit a shortage of our modern energy sources, we cannot easily go back to our former sources!

Video: Whales Celebrate Oil in Pennsylvania (0:48)

Click here for a video transcript of "Whales Celebrate Oil in Pennsylvania".

PRESENTER: This is an editorial cartoon that was published in the magazine, the publication, Vanity Fair in the year 1861, just before the US Civil War. And it is the grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania. And you'll notice the whales in their evening dress being served by frogs. And it's just before the Civil War, so you have the oil wells of our native land, may they never secede. And you have oils well that ends well. And we whale no more for our blubber. We have whales because we burn fossil algae. We don't burn whales to see at night anymore.

Source: "Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the Discovery of Oil Wells in Pennsylvania" Published in Vanity Fair in 1861. New Bedford Whaling Museum.

As the US got out of the whaling business, others—particularly Norwegians—got into it, using new technologies including faster boats and harpoon cannons to hunt species that had eluded the Yankee whalers. But even the vast resource of fast Antarctic whales proved small compared to the hunger of humans, and soon those whales were depleted as well.

Video: Peak Whale Oil (2:16)

Click here for a video transcript of "Peak Whale Oil".

PRESENTER: This is the history of whale oil production from the Yankee fleet from New England in the United States from the year 1800 on your left to the year 1880 on your right. And you'll see that they got better and better at whaling. And then, they went over peak whale oil and down the other side.

A lot of this was things like there's a civil war over here, when some whaling ships were sunk to block Southern harbors. The whaling fleet is crushed in the ice off of Alaska over here, and insurance prices go through the roof. But they were up off of Alaska because they couldn't find whales anywhere else. And that's what was going on.

Now here, there are 10,000 men on ships out of New England looking for whales in the world oceans. And there's lots more people working in New England to process the whale oil and what have you. Because you kill the whale and you boil the whale to make the oil, but then all the pieces of the whale were used for various things.

Now as they get better at whaling, the price went down. And the low point here is about $7 a gallon for whale oil that was used in lamps. As soon as peak whale oil was hit, the price of whale oil went up to $23 a gallon. And this is the equivalent of modern money.

And so what you find is it's not when you run out of the resource that the price goes up. It's as soon as the resource starts to get scarce. Now indeed, the free market worked in some sense. People went up the road from where I'm speaking to you and they drilled the first modern oil well, the Drake Well, in 1859. But you'll notice even that didn't really bring the price back down.

All of this oil-- 100 years of whaling-- 10,000 men at the peak-- collected as much whale oil as about one week of modern US oil imports. So there's really no chance that we can actually go back to the way we used to do things.

Source: Whale oil production. Prices and Production over a complete Hubbert Cycle: the Case of the American Whale Fisheries in 19th Century, Aug 2004, Ugo Bardi , ASPO: The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, and Dipartimento di Chimica - Universit a di Firenze,Via della Lastruccia 3, Sesto Fiorentino (Fi), Italy. bardi@unifi.it This document is published in the #45 issue of the ASPO newsletter. The present version appears at ASPO Italia. Data from A. Starbuck, History of the American whale fishery, Seacaucus, N.J. 1878, reprinted 1989

Video: Polka Oil (0:47)

Click here for a video transcript of "Polka Oil".

PRESENTER: This is actually the cover of a piece of sheet music that was published in 1864 in New York. This is "The American Petroleum Polka," or charge, or gallop, or waltz, or march. And it has a picture of a beautiful Pennsylvania scene, the oil well spouting its oil. Now oil was black back then. Oil is still black. But you couldn't have black oil falling on the lady's pink dress, so they made the oil white. And then bragging, "This oil well threw pure oil a 100 feet high." people understood the value that you get from oil, from petroleum. And they celebrated that.

Source: American Petroleum color lithograph music cover showing the Tarr Farm, Oil Creek, Pa., with oil wells, barrels, etc. Credit: J.J. Watson, c1864. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-86463. Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on reproduction. Call Number: LOT 10615-47 [item] [P&P] Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

The first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania along Oil Creek, up the road from where Dr. Alley lives, in 1859, shortly after peak whale oil in the US and the sharp rise in whale-oil prices. The impact was understood even then, with the magazine Vanity Fair in 1861 publishing an editorial cartoon showing the “Grand Ball of the Whales in Honor of the Oil Wells of Pennsylvania”, featuring the sign “Oils well that ends well”. The cover of the 1864 sheet music American Petroleum Polka features a Pennsylvania scene including a lady in a pink dress and an oil well that “…threw pure oil 100 feet high” (30 m).



video iconEarth: The Operators' Manual

Video: America's Energy Past: A 3-minute clip on "peak whales".

Click here for a video transcript of "America's Energy Past".

Narrator: But to have a sustainable energy future, we have to do things differently than in the past. Richard Alley explains-- We've been burning whatever was at hand for a long, long time. But as we see repeatedly with energy, you can burn too much of a good thing. And there are patterns in the human use of energy and if we're stupid enough to repeat them, burn all the fossil fuel remaining on the planet and put the CO2 into the air, we will cook our future.

Take what we did to trees in North America, for example. When the first settlers arrived on America's east coast, the forests were so thick, you could barely see the sky. That soon changed. And the forests almost completely disappeared as more and more trees were cut down to meet the heating, cooking and building needs of a growing population. Making iron needed lots of furnaces and the furnaces ran on charcoal made from trees.

You can trace that history in tell-tale place names from my home state of Pennsylvania. So farewell virgin forests, hello Pennsylvania Furnace, Lucy Furnace, Harmony Forge, and Valley Forge of Revolutionary War fame. Large areas of forest were soon depleted, and charcoal making and iron production moved on, to repeat the process elsewhere. Peak Wood, meaning the time of maximum production, came as early as the first decades of the 19th century or even before that for some parts of the east coast. The pattern of using up an energy resource until it was nearly gone was repeated at sea.

As America's population grew, so did their need for a better way to light the night. So whaling crews went to sea, on the hunt for the very best source of illumination... whale oil. At first, large numbers of whales were found nearby. They could just be towed to shore. But by the 1870s, we'd burned so many whales to light our evenings, that all the easy whales were gone. Whale-oil prices roughly doubled. Now ships had to travel close to the poles in search of bowhead whales. Their oil wasn't as good. And conditions were really dangerous. In 1871, up in the Arctic, 33 ships were trapped in the ice and crushed. Just as happened with America's forests, we'd exploited the most easily accessible resources and hadn't stopped until we'd almost used them up. Lucky for us, in 1859 a cheaper and more abundant source of energy had been discovered with Edwin Drake's successful oil well, drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. And for 150 years, America ran and grew on oil and coal.

Credit: Energy Quest USA