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the great white whale

Although the immensity of the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t understood yet, and despite recent editorials proclaiming Canada’s tar sands as an attractive alternative to deep sea drilling, this is a profound environmental incident that is sure to change public perception around this resource.
No reason for me to mention that the world is almost-entirely reliant on crude, but what surprised me is how recent this addiction is. Re-reading Herman Melville’s great classic Moby Dick, I was struck by the realization that whales were a major source of industrial oil prior to about 1870. Whaling was about oil!
The amazing thing is that the book was based on real incidents of whales that rammed whaling ships. Moby Dick was no imaginary behemoth. According to Wikipedia, Melville read about the incident of an albino sperm whale ramming the Nantucket ship the Essex in 1820, and sending it to the bottom with only eight survivors.
And then there was the real “Mocha Dick”, who had over 100 encounters with whaling ships in the Southern Atlantic between 1810 and 1830, usually coming out the winner. He had dozens of harpoons in his body but continued attacking whaling ships with incredible ferocity. And there were other whales with a vendetta, the most recent account being an attack on the Kathleen in 1910.
Well sir and mesdames, the Gulf oil gusher may be our Moby Dick. The worm has turned and the destruction is immense. And for all of us who rely on “dirty oil” for our livelihoods, it might be a good idea to have a look at the monster that is following us.
The oil craze in North America began in 1858 in Oil Springs, near Sarna, Ont., when James Williams dug a well behind his asphalt plant and struck oil instead of water at 20 metres (it’s still operating to this day, producing a small amount of light crude daily). The first commercial operation in the US began in 1861 in Titusville, Penn., and J. D. Rockefeller founded a refinery in Cleveland that became the precursor to Standard Oil in 1865.
It’s a wicked world and the accelerated craving for crude has sparked wars and destruction, death and depravity, on a macro-cosmic international scale. If you believe the report on 60 minutes a couple of weeks ago, BP was outrageously negligent in their exploitation of the drilling procedure, and sacrificed due diligence for increased profits and public safety. The Exxon Valdez was only small potatoes compared to the unabated gushing a mile under the Gulf that BP doesn’t know how to stop, and neither does the US government nor the hundreds of species (including homo sapiens) that depend, or rather rely on the ecologically symbiosis of the Gulf wetlands as a source of life itself.
And with Big Oil taking a drubbing, Big Trucking can’t be far behind. Outside of finding a new cheap and enviro-friendly fuel, we’re obsolete and don’t realize it…I know it’s heresy to say this, but running trucks up and down the road doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally. inter-city trucking should be done by rail except for a small percentage of perishables, and that should be prohibitively expensive unless deemed a necessity.
You can put all the LCVs on the road you want and it won’t make much of a dent. Freight on the 401 corridor should be moving by rail and I suppose we’re lucky that the rail infrastructure is so backwards and arrogant that we can keep our jobs for now. The two Canadian railways have an untouchable monopoly and they just don’t care about service to customers or the common good.
And where are the new technologies and alternatives to internal combustion? Years down the road if that. Hydrogen fuel cells haven’t panned out, electric trucks are still in their nascence, and other alternative fueled vehicles are just a pipe dream at present.
Not that the fickle public is going to help any. A recent survey indicated at 75% of Canadians “care” about the environment, but only 1 in 100 are willing to give up their cars to make a difference. The public is “concerned” about the latest glitch in the crude oil supply chain but nothing seems to be changing (except for the dinosaurs that claim global warming is an anomaly and we should keep on polluting all the way home, or as prime minister Harper aptly told us, global warming is a “socialist” plot).
So keep on trucking brothers and sisters but don’t look back. The big white whale is gaining on us!

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio. With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.
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5 Comments » for the great white whale
  1. Rick Gaskill says:

    People that say rails are the answer have never been to a railyard and seen the actual logistics involved . Rails don’t go to distribution centers . They go to railroad hubs where intermodal trailers have to be pulled to their destination by trucks . So you take thousands of trucks off the highway and centralize them in one area .How many railyards would have to be built ? How much area would they take and how many thousand trucks would line up nd move in and out of them each day ? How many communities would accept the excessive noise , traffic congestion , and pollution a railyards would create in their neighborhood ?
    Get some facts . Rail traffic is mostly committed to specific products . In the U.S. coal accounts for over 35% of rail traffic and chemicals and grain account for bout 9% each . Customers of these products do have rail sidings and the product is delivered directly to them . Production of these products will increase and railroads will concentrate on servicing them . The are insufficient investment funds available to fund expansion to handle general freight which would give a poor return on the investment .

  2. Moby Dork says:

    It’s nice to see some industrial history to back up eco logical projections. I can only take so much skull and crossbones reporting beforeIi switch on the metaphoric cartoon network for inspiration.. Yes indeed, the mighty whale _was the oil industry at one point in history and when their numbers went into decline, the sob sisters of that era warned that the lights of the world were going out forever.
    Doom tears evil repent etc.. Going the full Suzuki
    Enter kerosene; and the lights returned. It was just a matter of enlarging production of a commodity that had only been a curiosity, suddenly an essential industry.
    Kerosene was allegedly the discovery of a Bohemian hermit who distilled coal to release its essence the same way wine is distilled to release its flammable spirit. That was the kick off to refinery technology that basically distills crude oil into a rainbow of flammable products- capturing the essence of rock oil
    Humans have always desired, explored sources of, and uused fuel, thats just who we are.The mishap on the sea floor was just another Moby Dick wacking into the midship of our collective sensitivties,
    The drilling will carry on,, the geo goo will flow and we will burn it in 1001 clever ways without looking back.
    Somewhere off to one sode some lab geek innovator is tinkering with 1001 different new energy sourcesm some good. some bad most indifferent. And when that one pops up on the surface like a champagne cork from the Titanic wet bar, humanity will move that away to make best use of the discovery- and in a few generations the whole idea of harpooning the ocean floor for BTU’s will seem as kookie as harpooning a whale for lamp oil. But till then ” thar she blows” will be the signal of a gusher and when refined, it will be how the tarmac Cannonball 18 wheel heros will keep on trucking.

  3. Harry Rudolfs says:

    I fully cognizant that a radical shift of general freight to rail wouldn’t work–with the present system. It would require a radical paradigm shift and that’s not going to happen right away. And we’ll always need trucks at the pickup and delivery end to provide short and regional service. But the concept of ring roads and inland ports is not a foreign one to transport planners. But you couldn’t really expect CN or CP to be able to deliver such a concept. OK, I haven’t worked out of Brampton Intermodal (BIT) and CP Vaughan for years now, but I can’t imagine the service getting much better. I invariably encountered huge delays and plenty of bad order of non-existant equipment. CP was slightly more efficient than CN, in my opinion, but not much. I can recall staring at a stack or containers with the loader and pointing to the top one, “I want that one up there,” but couldn’t get it until afternoon because of the bureaucracy and often laziness of the loaders. Would be great to compare rail vs. road times. Why can’t shippers get expedited loads between Montreal and Toronto almost as quick as highway trucks? No, CP or CN aren’t the answer. What we need is a Porter Air of the rails, a third way to move freight.

  4. nnvsnu the *inscrutable* says:

    (woops, hey harry — misspelled “nnvsnu the inscrutable” — should be “a” not “i” — pfff ..) (also, this comment only seems to be a comment, heh ..)

  5. G. Paul Langman says:

    Harry, great article, until the part about non-believers in global warming being dinosaurs. I certainly believe that in my father’s lifetime (1916-2006) the average temperature rose about 3/4 of a degree, I just don’t believe that my father and his father and I caused it all. The temps on this planet have gone up and down a lot more than that over thousands of years,but we have only had internal combustion engines for 100 or so years. That doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t fight pollution. We certainly should at every turn. We are clearly poisoning our air,water,soil,etc. Reducing exhaust emissions for example is very necessary if life is to survive here. Preventing oil spills like the current one is absolutely necessary to our survival. Just don’t give me no global warming BS. Paul L.

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