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How Fossil Fuels Saved the Whales

With the advent of cheap oil, the market for whale blubber collapsed.

One of the great novels of the 19th century, Moby Dick is a riveting story about the whaler Ahab in pursuit of his great nemesis, a giant white sperm whale. Before the oil era, whale blubber was in high demand for lighting purposes. At $3 per gallon ($200 in today’s currency), only the rich could afford to light their houses in the dark evenings. Whale oil was so sought after that the magnificent mammal was nearly hunted to extinction. Then came John D. Rockefeller, who saved the whales with cheap oil from fossils.

Standard Oil

John D. Rockefeller

Few are familiar with this story for the same reason that they do not know the real history of Standard Oil. Today, we identify Rockefeller as a “robber baron” who used monopolistic power to push lesser competitors out of the market. It is the textbook case given for the necessity of antitrust laws.

However, as documented by the philosopher and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein, the bad reputation is built mostly on baseless slander.

When Rockefeller entered the oil industry in 1865, the price of kerosene was 58 cents per gallon, a fifth the price of whale oil. Due to kerosene’s low cost, it was an attractive alternative, but it was poor quality and not available in large and stable quantities. Many people died in kerosene explosions, and so demand remained depressed.

Rockefeller immediately recognized the business opportunity and advantages of standardization of large-scale production to reduce costs and improve quality. Today this is taken for granted in all businesses, but back then it was a novelty invented by Rockefeller.

By 1890 he had standardized, scaled up, streamlined his production, and cut costs so much that he was selling high-quality kerosene at a stunning 7.38 cents per gallon, nearly 50 times cheaper than whale oil. That was such a phenomenally low price that even poor people could extend their day after sunset, which they could use to enjoy reading and studying.

Rockefeller’s competitors were not happy because they were not as innovative. In addition, he employed some unsavory methods beneath his otherwise great business achievements. The result was that his name was tarnished.

The whalers were not happy, either, because they primarily were bankrupted by the new oil industry. A fortunate side effect of their demise was that whales today are not endangered animals. Fossil fuel saved the whales.

Other Animals Too

This is not the only time free-market competition has saved animals. Liberty Nation also has written about how capitalism is protecting the nation’s bees and endangered species. In fact, capitalism has done more for the planet’s environment than any environmentalist has.


But wait, didn’t Standard Oil destroy its competitors using monopoly power? No. Although its market share peaked at 90%, other savvy businessmen finally caught up and gave Rockefeller competition. When Standard Oil was broken up into seven smaller companies, its market share was already falling due to the competition from another shrewd oil entrepreneur: Alfred Nobel.


There are two lessons to be learned from this story. One is that the winners rewrite history, in this case, to slander Standard Oil and airbrush from our collective consciousness its achievements. The other is that peaceful competition between individuals within the bounds of well-defined property rights is often the best way to deal with shared problems, such as the destruction of the environment.


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