The Petroleum Industry Saved the Whales

When ‘the petroleum industry’ and ‘whales’ are together in one headline, the content of the article is usually understandably one-sided. And yet, industrialisation and the massive extraction of petroleum has effectively saved whales form extinction.

At the beginning of the industrial age, whales were an important natural resource which humans had been exploiting for centuries. Indeed the oil that was extracted from whales, notably that from the Physeter macrocephalus, the sperm whale, whose oil was extracted through the nose, had multiple use ranging from heating, to lamps, to paint.

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19th century advertisement showing soap made out of whale oil. Source: americanhistory.si.edu

Whaling ships were of considerable size, as they withstood the rough sea for the precious good that until then, only whales could provide. These hunters used so-called cutting and head spades, used to cut through the whales’ skull or decapitate the animal. The weight assured that it was easy to chop through the heavy vertebrae in a whale’s neck.

As the global demand for whale-oil lamps increased, the whaling business was booming, and soon supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Consumers were unwilling to pay the exorbitant price of $2.50 a gallon (Yergin, 1962). And yet, alternative lighting fluids, such as camphene, turned out to be of lesser quality, and even potentially dangerous. Camphene was highly flammable: a deadly risk in residential areas marked by wooden constructions.

By 1850, the consumer had the choice from:

  • camphene or “burning fluid” — 50 cents/gallon (combinations of alcohol, turpentine and camphor oil – bright, sweet smelling)
  • whale oil — $1.30 to $2.50/gallon
  • lard oil — 90 cents (low quality, smelly)
  • coal oil — 50 cents (sooty, smelly, low quality) (the original “kerosene”)

By 1851, whaling had had such a detrimental effect on whales that fishers had to move from the overfished Atlantic and Indian Ocean, which made the product even more rare and unaffordable. What seems far off in a society marked by the luxury of deciding over numerous production methods for electricity and commercialised light bulb in every shape and form, was a real crisis in the mid-1800s: people were literally running out of light.

Abraham Gesner saved us and the whales

Abraham Pineo Gesner was a Canadian physician and geoligist. In 1846, his mineral research resulted in a liquid combined out of coal, bitumen and oil shale, which he called kerosene.  In comparison to the competing products, kerosene was neither smelly nor dirty, and most of all: once its production was comercialised through Gesner in 1850 (the Kerosene Gaslight Company), the mass production of it (especially after Gesner’s company was bought by Standard Oil) brought prices of lighting down (Kutney, 2007).

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Not only had Gesner achieved to literally illuminate the world, he had deprived the whaling industry of its most important revenue source. The mass fishing of sperm whales had become obsolete:

“Gesner’s entrepreneurial activities and the establishment of his pioneer kerosene works in New York was fundamental for the development of the young coal-oil industry. The latter grew rapidly in the following years. The rise of the new coal oils inevitably triggered the fall of the whaling industry whose “golden years” finally had come to an abrupt end.” (Wakounig & Ruzicic-Kessler, 2011)

So next time you think about an organisation that has prevented animal cruelty and the horrible death of millions of animals, don’t think about Greenpeace, think about the petroleum industry.


Kutney. 2007. Sulfur: History, Technology, Applications & Industry by Dr. Gerald Kutney. 4.2.2. His Oil Ventures, p.84 (Online)

Wakounig & Ruzicic-Kessler. 2011. From the Industrial Revolution to World War II in East Central Europe  by Marjia Wakounig and Karlo Ruzicic-Kessler, Setting History Right: The Early European Petroleum Industries and the Rise of American Oil by Alexander Smith (University of New Orleans) p.68 (Online)

Yergin. 1962. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin. Chapter I: Price and Innovation, p.22 (Online)

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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