History proves that invention, not legislation, eases environmental woes.

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Watching a parade of migrating whales as they leap and frolic in the warm waters off Honolulu, it's worth remembering that these creatures owe their very survival to a much-derided 19th century Pennsylvania oil driller named Edwin Drake. His story should reassure present-day pessimists of the near miraculous power of technological advancement and pursuit of profit to save the environment.

That power is often obscured by controversies that seem to suggest an inevitable conflict between development and technology on the one hand and efforts to protect the environment on the other. The ferocious fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline offers only one prominent example, but the unheralded history of U.S. oil production provides a crucial corrective.

Slaughter at sea

Drake began his effort to extract petroleum from the ground in the spring of 1858, when all of America relied on whale oil to light its lamps and to lubricate the new machines of the industrial revolution.

The United States dominated the whaling industry, which sent its ships on multi-year, 10,000 mile journeys from its Massachusetts base of operations around the tip of South America and into the Pacific in relentless pursuit of humpbacks and sperm whales. The blubber from the butchered beasts, melted down into oil, earned New Bedford, Mass., the title of "The City That Lit the World." The whaling villages of Honolulu and Lahaina in the remote Hawaiian Islands welcomed 100 to 800 ships a year, until a century of unceasing slaughter depleted whale populations in every corner of the globe.

At the same time, tinkerers and entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania began developing petroleum-based lamp oil as a cheaper alternative to the increasingly limited supplies from whaling. In 1851, Samuel Kier began collecting crude oil from puddles and springs near his salt mines. He refined it into the newly patented "kerosene," inventing a lamp to accommodate his product, promising better and cheaper illumination than whale oil.

But it remained for Drake, a former railroad conductor, to devise a way to get more of the petroleum from below the earth's surface. His well near Titusville, mocked as "Drake's Folly," took almost a month to reach 70 feet deep. It employed Drake's revolutionary concept of using piping in the bore hole so rock surrounding the drilled shaft wouldn't collapse and close the opening in the earth. He never patented the process and died in poverty 22 years later, but his engineering genius saved the whales.

Lamp-light alternative

Oil-drilling a la Drake facilitated the mass production of kerosene, which quickly replaced whale oil as the fuel of choice for lighting. The mighty whaling industry, which employed an estimated 70,000 at its peak, dwindled to near extinction — saving the shrinking whale populations from near-certain extinction of their own.

The fearless seafarers celebrated inMoby-Dick didn't spare these remarkable creatures because of a sudden burst of tender feeling for their prey, or in response to an explosion of far-sighted government regulation. They stopped hunting because it no longer paid well to continue the slaughter.

In other words, the pursuit of profit led to technological advancement that protected the environment more than it ravaged it. The emerging oil industry eventually provided 100 times the jobs of the whaling business it replaced. Meanwhile, automobiles fed by the extracted oil made their own huge contribution to environmental enhancement. Though reviled today as sources of air pollution and global warming, cars initially replaced the millions of horses whose prodigious droppings, and rotting carcasses, fouled every major 19th century city with a potent and indelible stench.

In the same way, a raft of yet unforeseen breakthroughs, providing the promise of profit for their intrepid developers, will do more to address our environmental challenges than even the most sweeping legislation or the most anguished pleas for conservation.

In the last 10 years, the nation's giant steps toward energy independence owe more to new methods of taking fossil fuels from the earth than to tightened regulations, or the heavily subsidized (and still struggling) wind and solar industries.

Free-market fans can join ecological activists in enjoying the inspiring sight of whale pods plying the Pacific, but they can do so with the added pride that it was ingenious businessmen looking to make a buck who inadvertently kept all this magnificence alive.

Michael Medved, a member of the USA TODAY contributors board, hosts a nationally syndicated talk radio show.

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