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Houston Geological Society Bulletin


Houston Geological Society Bulletin, Volume 37, No. 3, November 1994. Pages 13-13.

Abstract: The American Whale Oil Industry or, a Look Back to the Future of the American Petroleum Industry?


James L. Coleman, Jr.
Amoco Production Company Houston

American whaling began modestly in 1649 and, in 200 years, completely dominated international business economics. Eight of every ten whaling ships sailed from a New England port. Whale oil lit the late evening lamps of the American Revolution and lubricated the machines of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States. Chief among other factors, the rise of the American petroleum industry led to the eventual demise of the American whaling industry. In retrospect, it is remarkable how the general evolution of the American petroleum industry has taken a similar path. Comparison of the American petroleum industry to the American whaling industry may be highly instructive in these challenging economic times.

The American whaling industry rose from humble beginnings off Long Island to become an international giant. In 1846, its peak year, 735 ships and 70,000 people were employed. Continually decreasing reserves forced whalers to go farther and farther from their home ports in New England. Voyages became longer, and risks on required return-on-investment became higher. Calamities, in conjunction with a persistent reduction in whale stocks, diversion of investment capital to more profitable ventures, and major improvement in refined petroleum products, struck the death-blow for the American whaling industry. Today's American petroleum industry, while adopting some practices of the American whaling industry, has also embraced other activities which may preempt such a catastrophic demise.

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