Cheap Oil and the Hunting of Whales

Andrew Nikiforuk has a piece over at the British Columbia-based web magazine The Tyee about whaling and the oil industry, reviewing a book about Moby Dick by energy banker, Robert Wagner Jr. Wagner’s reading of the novel in the context of the modern oil industry and its unwillingness to countenance alternatives offers an interesting perspective on our reliance on cheap oil, and the lengths to which we are prepared to go to defend it. As I’ve noted before, the hunting of whales in the Arctic, before Moby Dick was written, also has parallels with the oil industry in the twenty-first century. By about 1820, as the whales began to be ‘fished out’ in the Greenland sea, whalers moved on to the Davis Strait, to the West of Greenland, which, coincidentally, is where modern oil companies are preparing to drill for oil as their desperation for new reserves increases. The Davis Strait proved lucrative for a while, but a lot more dangerous, and even that, in the end, was fished out:

A couple of years ago Robert Wagner Jr., a well-known Houston energy banker, read the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a former whaler. It’s a rambling and gritty tale about the 19th whaling industry and America’s first energy boom.

The narrative, which richly details the nature of an economic obsession, squarely harpooned Wagner, a good friend of the late energy critic, Matthew Simmons. “I was blown away by the synergies and the comparisons of whaling with the oil and gas industry, ” says Wagner.

For more than 40 years the 69-year-old banker financed Texas oil deals and had a front row seat to the world’s most volatile commodity while working for the likes of Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen.

And so the maniacal pursuit of a white whale to illuminate North American homes haunted Wagner. It also reminded him how every age irrevocably passes into another whether people are prepared for change or not.

“The rampant obsessive exploration, production and consumption of hydrocarbons that saturates our society today can be read much like the situation for the men on the Pequod,” notes Wagner. The world of “There she blows” and “Give it to him” actually led, if not descended to “Drill, baby, drill.”