The Energy Series – A History of Hydrocarbons and the Environment

Episode 2 with Pierre Desrochers

Pierre Desrochers is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His areas of interest include economic development, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and international trade. He is the coauthor of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.


Some people think that the development of hydrocarbons has led to the progressive despoilment of the natural environment over the years. In fact, the opposite is true, argues contrarian Professor Pierre Desrochers in this myth-busting interview. “Greenpeace would have had no whales left to save in the 1970s,” he insists, “if it hadn’t been for the oil industry in the second half of the 19th century.” Counterintuitive perhaps, until you consider that whale oil was the primary oil used for lighting in rural areas before it was replaced by kerosene.

Another example is forests, which have made a tremendous comeback in much of the world thanks in part to petroleum products like fertilizers that have allowed us to produce a lot more food per acre, and therefore decreased our need to clear forestland. As for cities and their automobile traffic, we forget the terrible pollution problem that horses once represented. Paving roads with asphalt, another petroleum product, also made things better by reducing dust and particulate pollution.

And the improvements keep coming. For instance, fracking, for all its bad press, has helped the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions more quickly than Europe over the past few years. This is due to the fact that it has allowed Americans to substitute natural gas for coal, which emits more greenhouse gas per unit of energy.

“Obviously, human beings will always have an impact on nature,” explains Professor Desrochers, “so the issue is not: having an impact or not having an impact; [the issue is] minimizing our impact while improving standards of living.” A steady stream of technological innovations has helped improve those standards of living by continually increasing our accessible reserves of hydrocarbons—all while taking care of the natural environment.

Links of interest: Pierre Desrochers at the University of Toronto Mississauga | The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet | Innovation and the Greening of Alberta’s Oil Sands

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