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Thursday, 29 September 2011

“Some Day English Capitalists Will Become Alive to the Immense Importance of European Petroleum” Or: The Birth of Our Reliance on Oil:

With things the way they are in Libya at present drawing passionate cries from all corners of the country of ‘We’re only there for the oil!’ I thought this little article quite pertinent.
It demonstrates that we here in Britain have been craving oil from all over the globe for well over a century. You may read this article and think to yourself, ‘Oh, so this is when it all started.’

A New Motive Power:
Turning over the pages of some volumes of Punch of the time when John Leech contributed prodigiously to the gaiety of this nation, I came upon a number of jokes founded upon the alarming statement of Professor Stanley Jevons that within about a hundred years our coal supply, to which many have attributed the commercial supremacy of this fantastic little island, would come to an end. There were comic drawings of people wearing pieces of “black diamond” as ear-rings or breast-pins, and many funny ideas that did credit to the inexhaustible, genial humourist. Today it appears not unlikely that before the terms of Jevrons gloomy prophesy, coal will have ceased to be of great importance.

In the sixties the “black stone” of Mrs. Markham seemed the only substantial source of heat, light and power, and now its position is menaced, not only by electricity, to which it has already been forced to act as handmaiden, but also by another mineral product, the use of which is believed to date back to the building of the Tower of Babel, when “slime had they for mortar.” The ruins of Nineveh and Babylon tell us that the mortar owed its quality to partially evaporated petroleum; and it is from petroleum, still a puzzle to the geologist, that apparently will come the force, heat, and light of the future.

Petroleum is a name that does not perhaps appeal to the housewife, although she burns it under the name of kerosene in her lamps; so dead is she, as a rule, to inquiry that there are old ladies who to this day refer to refined mineral oils as “colza.” Yet, those whose business it is to consider the safety of the little heart that beats for the huge British Empire are deeply studying the mineral oil that has introduced to our language the picturesque phrase “to strike oil.” For the meaning of the phrase it is simplest to refer to “The Golden Butterfly,” where may be found the fortunes of the delightful American who entertained a collection of sham literary lions in virtue of the fact that he had found his back garden and land flowing, not with milk and honey, but with oil. However, I do not mean to speak of the American oil industry, which has been the chief factor in the establishment of those commercial “trusts” that have put the United States under a bondage of cruel monopolies such as this happy country has not known, even in the days when the Statute of Monopolies was passed for the protection of trade. After all, one is disposed to look upon American commerce rather as a matter of statistics that appeal to Giffen, than as the subject of an article that may posses human interest, and it is Europe that attracts the attention of a non-commercial writer who can find an interest in things bought and sold. What mind can resist the quaint contrast involved in the fact that nowadays a huge business is done in exporting from Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the “sacred fire” which has attracted for many centuries the Guebres – the Persian fire-worshippers – who came to Ateshga, the “place of fire” in the cult of their religion? It is curious, lamentable to think that the site of one of the old temples of the fire-worshippers is now occupied by large petroleum works.

But what, one may ask, of the services that petroleum renders beyond producing a luminant for lamps, which, if properly used, is of great brilliance and softness? In petroleum, as in coal and other cases, “the stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone of the corner”; the by-products are more important, or at least, more valuable in some aspects, than that which was the primary object. The petroleum, after distillation of the refined oils and naphtha, leaves a residuum which promises to be the motive power of the world since, weight for weight and measure for measure, it is vastly more efficient, far easier of storage, and more convenient to handle than coal. Possibly a great many people who speak about electric power, who talk of electric traction, hardly recognize the fact that at present the marvelous force in practice can only be used in secondary form. Electricity, in fact, is like steam, and will not generate itself; some other force is needed, and so steam and gas, far from losing their importance, have almost gained in the modern developments of the form of energy whose name is based upon the fact that pieces of paper will stick to rubbed amber.

The petroleum residuum, however, threatens to oust the gas engine and dethrone coal and become the paramount means of generating the force that is to drive our ships and locomotives and generate electricity, and moreover, be used for lighting in place of coal-gas; while it has already proved itself the chosen power for the auto-cars which ere the end of the century will monopolise our roads. The Admiralty is building a new cruiser, the Galatea, to run with oil fuel. As far back as 1894 one metropolitan gas company used nearly five hundred and twelve million feet of oil-gas; the Great Eastern Railway has been building huge tanks at Stratford; in the great French auto-car competition the oil-fuel car took the prize, running from Bordeaux to Paris without a stop at the rate of fifteen miles per hour. Neither cruiser nor railway locomotive needs such an efficient fuel as the auto-car, and the French trial showed the extraordinary value of oil fuel.

What, then, about the Jevons of the petroleum supply? Already the States have shown signs, not, indeed, of immediate exhaustion, but at least the need to tap the deeper and more expensive wells. Luckily, “Yurrup,” the continent that our transatlantic cousins deem played out, seems richer in mineral oils than the States. The production of Baku increases daily to the benefit of Russia and of the Tyne, where special transport steamers are built. Roumania and Galicia have colossal stores of mineral oil till now barely touched. One European well in 1886 actually wasted in one day more than the States produced in a year and is still busy, but not wastefully. It is a characteristic of the European oils that whilst at one time scorned in the market because the residuum then treated as waste was too high, they are at present becoming the more valuable, because, the waste has proved to be “the headstone of the corner.”

Some day English capitalists will become alive to the immense importance of European petroleum, and if they find it too large for a “corner,” will make it “the headstone” of an industry that will provide a fruitful investment for the idle millions buried in the back-gardens of England.
-          Illustrated London News, May 9th 1896

Still, at least Professor Stanley Jevons’ prediction did not come true, and we did not run out of coal in the 1990’s, but it will happen, and whereas the Victorians, at the time of writing the above article had a new, wonder-fuel of petroleum to look forward to using as the coal supplies ceased, we are still using that oil and petrol, and have nothing to replace it with when the earth’s crust has surrendered all of its resources to us.

We best get thinking fast as I doubt we will squeeze another hundred years out of coal and oil…


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