Did fossil fuels save the whales?

Keith Gaby

“Save the Whales” was a rallying cry of 1970’s environmentalism. The great sea mammals had been hunted to the brink of extinction and grassroots activists rallied to save them. But there might not have been any whales left to protect if the world hadn’t embraced petroleum in place of whale oil a century earlier.

The wildcatters and industrialists in Pennsylvania and Texas in the late 19th century didn’t set out to protect an endangered specifies, of course. In addition to other economic factors*, their product was simply better and cheaper to light lamps than whale oil. The credit for fighting to save that endangered species should go entirely to the 1970’s activists, and those advocates who are continuing that work today. But the unintended consequence of the oil boom does demonstrate the huge impacts - for good or ill - that can be created by a rush for profit.

Those impacts spring from the fact that when there is money to be made, people rarely pause to think deeply about the broader effect on society.  We rush for gold, invent energy drinks or produce reality TV shows for the immediate profit, without knowing the full consequences. That’s often a good thing – bringing new products, conveniences or other benefits to the world – but there are almost always by-products we couldn’t have envisioned.  For instance, the same petroleum products that took over from whale oil now produce the carbon pollution that is causing dangerous changes to our climate.

But it’s also possible to use that same desire for profit as a lever to solve the climate problem. 

The key is to ensure that the full cost of carbon pollution is borne by the companies who are profiting from creating it.  As a society, we require companies be responsible for the garbage or toxic waste they produce, so that taxpayers don’t have to clean up the mess. The same should be true for greenhouse gas pollution, which causes billions of dollars of damage from stronger storms, droughts and sea level rise. 

When companies are required to spend money to cover the full cost of their operations, they’ll start looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. They’ll cut energy use, increase efficiency and switch to cleaner fuels.  Entrepreneurs and investors, seeing an abundance of eager customers, will develop new technologies to deliver power without damaging our environment.  It will turn the fever of a gold rush to a positive end.

You can see that principle at work on a smaller scale with efforts like the Auto X Prize. The sponsors offered a multi-million dollar prize to anyone who could develop a car that got over 100 miles to the gallon. It led to engineering breakthroughs like the Very Light Car by Edison2.  Now imagine that same dynamic, but with the full power of the market and millions of customers as the prize.

The challenge is that in order to get the price of each source of energy to reflect its full cost, you need a pollution tax or some kind of market-based emissions limit, which can only be imposed nationally by Congress.  Those who generally oppose taxes and regulatory limits are uneasy about this approach, even though in both cases they could be designed to return all the money to taxpayers. In reality, the debate is over what we should tax or limit – air pollution or income – not over the overall burden.

The free market is among the most powerful forces in the world. Let’s direct that human energy toward solving our most difficult environmental challenge.

*The full story of the transition from whale oil, and the decline of whaling in general, is complex and goes beyond the increased use of petroleum.

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