Energy Perspectives

Oil Tankers:Transporting Consumerism

Written by Bethany Waite, former student at Fleming College and curatorial intern at Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Oil and related petroleum products have been on many Canadians’ minds lately. We’re having important conversations about how it is transported, how to maximize the economic benefits while decreasing our carbon footprint, and even the price of gas at the pump. While these conversations may be more prominent, our dependency on oil and petroleum products is nothing new. It began with the discovery of oil in North America in the 1850s, providing a resource that would come be consumed on a global scale. The benefits of oil were quickly appreciated but one question arose: How to get oil extracted in North America to where it was needed? The solution was found in the already established marine shipping routes which were used to transport other goods around the world. Over time, crude oil has become the largest commodity shipped by the Canadian marine transportation system, representing 20% of total tonnage shipped.

Oil businesses in Montreal, Quebec, n.d. (CSTMC/CN Collection CN002163).

The first marine oil tankers were built in the 1860s and propelled with sails; the first steam tanker followed shortly after in 1873 with the ability to carry about 1750 barrels of oil. Ship builders began to design larger ships with more storage to transport more oil. This led to the three island design (as seen below) which would become standard for over 60 years.

Example of the three island design structure, each section was considered on ‘island’ on the vessel. This was the standard in tanker ship building for over 60 years (CSTMC 1975.0170).

The need for increased tanker size can be attributed to the increased use of petroleum products. By the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, oil production and consumption became essential to a country’s development, and infrastructure was built to support its growth. Petroleum consumption became popular measure of a given country’s economic and developmental success: If people were buying products, they had income to spend. This was not restricted to the wealthy, as five-and-dime stores began to open. Consumption was also used to determine success of immigrants assimilating to North American culture. However, personal consumption was largely halted during The First and Second World Wars, when resources were directed more actively to military efforts. The Second World War was a highly mechanized conflict and required large amounts of fuel. T2 Tankers were quickly built and could carry 141,200 barrels of oil, making them important targets for U-Boats. The tankers that avoided U-Boats and survived the war were then sold to private companies for commercial use.

An allied oil tanker torpedoed during the Second World War in the Atlantic Ocean (Image Source: U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-43376)).

The end of the Second World War brought a post-war economic boom. Industrial developments made during the war were adapted to commercial production, and consumer products flooded the market. Perhaps one of the most significant changes was the mass availability of automobiles. Cars could dramatically change one’s lifestyle. No longer were individuals in urban areas constrained to living near their workplace. Car owners could instead move into the growing suburbs and commute to work. Shopping centres emerged as a destination for the latest consumer products. These developments were once again used to measure the success of a nation, and the foundation of this success relied on the abundance of oil and low fuel prices. The problem of overproducing goods during the late 19th Century was no longer a worry. Homes were quickly being filled with material goods.

Examples of common material goods introduced during the post-war boom. Top row from left to right: Hemmer and Stitcher Sewing Machine (CSTMC 1995.0584), Teen Tune Transistor Radio (CSTMC 1992.1260), Electric Knife Sharpener (2001.0234). Bottom row from left to right: Television (CSTMC 1997.0362); Vaporizer (CSTMC 1995.0852).

The stage was now set for society’s reliance on fossil fuel resources. Not only is petroleum relied upon as a fuel source during manufacturing and shipping, but also as a production material. It is often overlooked that petroleum is used to make asphalt, plastics, cosmetics, and even the wax that protects frozen foods. While the rate of consumption was steadily increasing during the post-war era, turmoil was ahead for the oil tanker industry. Conflicts in the Middle East during the 1960s and 1970s closed the Suez Canal on several occasions. This impacted marine transportation of oil as tankers were required to go around The Cape of Good Hope, adding more than 9,600 KM to their journey to bring oil to Western countries. Ship owners quickly realized that the most economical way to continue supplying enough oil to meet demand was to build bigger tankers. The three island design was modified into one with a superstructure at the stern of the ship providing more room for cargo storage and giving birth to the modern supertanker. These tankers can carry 800,000 to 2 million barrels of oil.

The Suez Canal is identified by the black box and the aerial image is of the canal. When the canal was closed, tankers carrying oil from the Middle East had to travel around Africa to reach Western countries (Image Source: YolanC, 2006).

The prosperous post-war boom was finite, as the price of oil would increase significantly during The Energy Crisis of 1973-1979. This crisis impacted both individual consumption and the marine transport industry. Experts and economists began projecting peak oil, estimating that if consumption continued at this rate, oil deposits would be exhausted within 50 years. However, once The Energy Crisis ended, the status quo returned and consumption rates began to rise. Marine tanker traffic involving even larger tankers also escalated. Marine tanker traffic remains one of Canada’s primary modes of transportation for crude oil from both domestic and imported. Canadian oil is mainly exported within North America. While conversations surrounding the transportation of oil and petroleum products have become common today, it is important to understand how our dependency on this resource developed. Consumption is not new; it has been a pillar of human activity since ancient times, and has propelled Canada into prosperity. How and what we consume is the variable.


A farmer harvesting hay beside an oil rig in Redwater, Alberta, n.d. (CSTMC/CN Collection CN003649).

Attribution: U.S. Navy. (photo 80-G-43376). "Allied tanker torpedoed". This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 520607. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Viewed on 30 July 2014. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Allied_tanker_torpedoed.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Allied_tanker_torpedoed.jpg> YolanC, 2006. "Canal de Suez". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. Viewed on 30 July 2014. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canal_de_Suez.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Canal_de_Suez.jpg>

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