The Development of Fossil Fuels Helped to Remedy Environmental Damage

By Bruce Shields

Two Vermonters, under the pretense of being environmental activists, have gotten themselves arrested in Washington, DC, recently. Their acts of civil disobedience are designed to block construction of a pipeline by which Canadian crude petroleum may be transported into the refining and distribution network located in Texas. Since many countries which supply petroleum to the US market are hostile to the US, developing a reliable source for our refinery feedstock in Canada clearly holds some financial and strategic advantages. But Bill McKibben and Gus Speth argue that consumption of petroleum in the US is a dangerous activity, which should be terminated in any way possible, and that blocking the construction of the pipeline may help end “America’s addiction to oil.”

Environmental activism carried out by people with no sense of history is highly dangerous. Coal, and later oil were from the onset of the Industrial Age almost magically effective in remedying the worst environmental damage from human activity. Because McKibben and Speth apparently focus exclusively on the environment during their own lifetimes, they are unaware of how fossil fuels have created the landscape and ecology they think they are preserving. While there are dozens of ways to illustrate this which should be apparent to any person who has lived in the country in a 3d world area, two examples will suggest how wrong McKibben and other self-styled environmentalists are.

Iron making is essential to every element of modern life — from bed frames to cooking utensils, we depend either directly on iron implements or on replacement implements in which some other material has been substituted for iron. Pre-industrial iron making consumed unbelievable quantities of charcoal, made by carburizing of wood under oxygen depleted conditions. The old furnaces consumed 265 bushels of charcoal to make 1 ton of iron. A further 100 bushels of charcoal were required per ton of iron reworked into either wrought iron or steel, such as the iron tires used on wagons, or the cut steel nails required for house-building. A bushel is about 36 liters, or 8 1/2 gallons (the contents of three 5 gallon pails almost makes 2 bushels). A cord of wood carbonized by traditional colliers yields possibly 25 bushels. So making one ton of iron requires the cutting of 11 cords of wood in the primary process and 4 cords for the forging and working, for a total of 15 cords per ton of iron.

Because of that consumption, English forest law as early as Queen Elizabeth 1 allowed the forest constables to ban construction of iron working facilities within a certain distance of the Royal Forests. Because of the constraint upon iron production in England imposed by shortages of wood, Massachusetts colonists very early set up their own blast furnace at Saugus, in the town of Lynn. Reasonably complete records exist for certain years. That furnace when in regular operation produced 200 tons of iron. That implies burning some 3000 cords of wood each year. It is classified as a small furnace. While the exact stand data for pre-colonial forests is uncertain, it is likely that virgin timber would allow a cut of some 30 cords per acre, assuming a clean clearcut. That means that one single furnace would consume all the wood growing on a minimum of 100 acres each and every year of operation. By the time of the American revolution, more than 30 furnaces were operating within the US. Until the development of the coking process, which did not become available in the US until about 1815, all blast furnaces operated using charcoal. Some 18 blast furnace sites can be identified by industrial archeologists in Vermont; the one at Vergennes was reputed to have consumed more than 8000 cords of wood annually while it was in operation. When coal could be substituted for wood, thousands of acres of Vermont woodland was relieved from an extreme cutting pressure. The same situation could be documented for domestic heating fuel, for industrial boiler fuel as steam engines became more common, and so on. In 1860, the town of Craftsbury had about 800 households. A survey of probate inventories suggests fuel usage was about 12 cords per household per year, or nearly 10,000 cords purely for domestic heating in one single town. That does not include wood consumed in maple sugar making and other activities.

The other use of wood is indirect. Before the internal combustion engine, motive power was exclusively horses with railroads gradually appearing as the 19th Century progressed. Horses are relatively heavy consumers of resources: estimating from cattle census numbers in the Census of Agriculture, about the time of the Civil War 25% of all the land in Vermont was devoted to feeding horses. Fertilization of soils had not yet been developed, and so it took many acres to pasture horses, to provide grain and hay for horses. Because of the large number of horses stabled in cities and towns, large acreage was devoted to raising hay to sell on the market. About 1890, one estimate suggests that New York City stabled 250,000 horses in the 5 boroughs. These horses pulled carriages, carts, wagons, taxis and buses, and worked inside treadmills to operate hoists, elevators, and lifts.

It is very notable that when coal came onto the scene, use of wood as industrial fuel dropped precipitously. By the time of the Civil War, most iron furnaces in Vermont were shuttered, although high quality charcoal continued to be in demand for blacksmith use (because many smiths despised the extremely smelly early coke). Farmland began to revert to forest very rapidly beginning about the beginning of the 20th century; electricity generated by coal or oil began to be available to displace wood-fired steam engines, and coming of the internal combustion engine almost completely displaced horses. Through all of this, a huge improvement in the efficiency of fuel use has occurred year over year.

For instance, the old way of making maple sugar was in an open kettle. Technology has improved continuously ever since, with pans and arches of constantly improved design. A cord of wood may generate about as much heat as 100 gallons of fuel oil; the pans in use in Vermont at the end of World War II burned 3-4 gallons of oil to make one gallon of syrup. Improved arches reduced that almost in half; the use of electricity in Reverse Osmosis machines has led to a further improvement of efficiency by a factor of more than 250%, so that a gallon of syrup produced today uses the equivalent of the heat in less than half a gallon of fuel oil. Mr. McKibben’s and Mr. Speth’s silly publicity stunt has not reduced fossil fuel consumption by one drop. But hundreds of entrepreneurs working to make their own lives better have, like the maple sugar makers, reduced the implied fuel content of maple sugar by some 90% in less than 100 years. These improvements were possible because of stable and predictable sources of conventional energy. Do McKibben & Speth actually get paid to teach their goofiness?.

Bruce Shields has retired from three professions; college English teacher, sawmiller and executive of the Vermont Forest Products Association, and operator of a farm supply store. In retirement, he works his woodlot and maple sugar place, sits on the boards of several statewide organizations related to natural resources, and serves as Lister in the town of Eden, VT.