The Whale in the Water

The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.


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