Guest commentary: ‘It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us’


American humorist Will Rogers quipped, “So good luck Mr. Ford. It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us, but you certainly didn’t leave us like you found us,” in referring to automobile titan Henry Ford, who he admired for the impact Ford made on the early 20th century.

A century since Will Roger’s quote has nearly past and the answer is in: The industrial era and our modern life, during the last century, with inexpensive and plentiful energy sourced from carbon-based fuels, sequestered in the earth for 500 million years awaiting the ascent of mankind, has fueled the greatest period of progress in human history but is also contributing to a looming global climate crisis.

Coal has been mined and burned for heating for centuries and became widely used for smelting ores in the 18th century. Coal was the first fuel of the Industrial Revolution after James Watt patented the steam engine in 1769. Coal was abundant in many places in the world, and mining of coal increased exponentially to fuel the factories, trains, steamships and power plants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Global coal production has doubled since 1980. 2023 production was 9.6 billion tons, with China producing and consuming over half.

The dawn of modern crude oil production came in 1859, when blacksmith William Jeffry drilled the first oil well in Trumble County, Ohio. J.D. Rockefeller, a young bookkeeper, saw opportunity and formed business partnerships in the early tumultuous and environmentally disastrous business of drilling for and refining Ohio and later Pennsylvania crude. Rockefeller formed the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and began ruthlessly consolidating and dominating the fledgling industry.

The main product of refined crude oil in the 1800s was kerosene, a much better and less expensive illuminant than whale oil, which had prevailed until then. After 20 years in the business, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company had captured 90% of the oil refinery business and had pushed the price of kerosene down to 8 cents per gallon.

The next boom of the oil business came with the demand for gasoline to power the internal combustion engines of the automobile, especially after the 1908 introduction of Ford’s affordable Model T. Standard Oil and others found new wealth in selling gasoline, which had been an unwanted byproduct of refining kerosene. Exploration for new sources of the “black gold” continued across the world. After 1870, there had been vast discoveries in the Caspian Sea basin and elsewhere. In the United States, Texas, Oklahoma and California were sprouting new wells.

In 2023, global crude oil demand averaged 102 million barrels per day, 1.56 trillion gallons annually. A 42-gallon barrel has been the industry standard since 1866. A typical barrel of crude oil will yield 19 gallons of gasoline, 10 gallons of diesel, 3 gallons of jet fuel, 2 gallons of heating oil and 2 gallons of asphalt. The remaining portion includes other refined products such as liquefied petroleum gasses, petrochemical feedstocks and other specialty products.

The third primary energy source of our modern world is natural gas. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, a carbon-bonded, highly potent greenhouse gas. In 18th and 19th century Europe and the United States, it was primarily used for lighting. Natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning transitional energy source and currently supplies more than one-half of the energy consumed by residential and commercial customers, and about 41 percent of the energy used by U.S. industry. 2023 global production was 145 trillion cubic feet, the energy equivalent of 1.14 trillion gallons of gasoline.

In the next segment, I will explore the theory that Earth is well into a sudden climate change or global warming period, the primary root cause being atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) breaking through levels not experienced in 3 million years. The cause of this rapid rise in CO2 levels is attributed to humans extracting huge quantities of carbon, which had been sequestered in the earth for eons, and releasing it into our atmosphere in less than 200 years.

Increased levels of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas, is also a huge culprit in climate change, accounting for some 20% of the current warming trend. Other human activities causing diminishing natural sequestration of CO2 in our forests and oceans are also blamed.

Whether you buy the theory that humans are causing a near future climate catastrophe or not, one fact is indisputable: the progress human societies have made in the modern era and our global economy has been and continues to be powered by a huge fire of inexpensive and plentiful carbon-based fuels. The benefits were tremendous. The long-term consequences of pollution and greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere have become undeniable in this new century.

A second indisputable fact is the world is at the beginning of a transition to diminish this massive fire and move from dependence on carbon-based fuels to energy sources that do not contribute greenhouse gasses to our atmosphere. Climate science is driving a global consensus that action must be taken. Transition to clean energy goals are becoming top priorities of government policy worldwide. The overwhelming trend to invest in, develop and implement new clean-energy technologies is well under way and will progress rapidly in the coming decades.


Bill Serrahn has lived in his Packwood “afterlife” for 15 years. He is a Vietnam veteran and former hard rock underground miner. He spent his first afterlife in Seattle as a systems analyst and business application developer. His interest and familiarization with Lewis County government developed during his quest to save Skate Creek Park in Packwood. He can be reached at