The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future
By Mason Inman
413 pp., hardcover. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. – Apr. 2016. $29.95.
This is the inaugural biography of the great 20th-century geoscientist Marion King Hubbert, and it sets a high bar. Its author, science journalist Mason Inman, supplies a spirited, page-turning portrait of Hubbert’s life, times and ideas. Though previously known mostly for his data-driven journalism—as a writer for periodicals like Science, Nature and National Geographic News—here Inman shows that he has considerable narrative writing muscles as well.
The focal point of The Oracle of Oil is Hubbert’s distinction as the first person to recognize the phenomenon of peak oil. Hubbert spent decades studying petroleum and natural gas reserves data from around the world. From this investigation he hypothesized that output from large regions—such as the whole United States, or the whole world—would tend to follow a bell-shaped curve. The point of peak production is known today as Hubbert’s peak, and when applied to world supplies, it marks the end of cheap and easily extractable oil or gas. In 1956, after extensive study into the total size of world oil and gas reserves and the quantities consumed thus far, Hubbert made the highly publicized prediction that conventional oil production in the contiguous United States would peak between 1965 and 1970. While not widely believed at first, his prediction proved correct, with 1970 being the peak year.
Such feats of prescience were Hubbert’s stock-in-trade. As Inman shows, Hubbert was ahead of his time in taking on a host of cherished assumptions that he saw as inimical to the long-term sustainability of our civilization. Among his main laments was that modern-day industrial humans had come to regard the anything-but-normal phenomenon of exponential growth as normal. As far back as the ’30s, he was deeply concerned about the most troubling example of such growth, overpopulation. In fact, both he and his wife Miriam felt so strongly about the need to achieve a state of zero population growth that they decided not to have children. Hubbert was also for doing away with economic growth in favor of a steady-state economy. This was and is a deeply heretical notion, but one whose merits have become ever more apparent the further our society has hurtled into overshoot.
The part of Oracle on Hubbert’s early life is at its most absorbing when tracing the arc of his intellectual development. Born in 1903 in San Saba, Texas, Hubbert became an avid tinkerer at a young age. He idolized Thomas Edison and was always taking apart electrical devices to determine how they worked. During his college years, he also became deeply interested in geology, physics and mathematics. Enrolling at the University of Chicago, he proved so brilliant at these subjects that papers he wrote during the ’20s are still being studied in geophysics classes today.
Inman pauses at various points in his account of Hubbert’s early development to highlight formative moments. For example, he describes how a geology field trip first taught Hubbert to look at evidence through “pioneers’ eyes.” Hubbert’s class had traveled to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin to study the geological setting of the valley in which the lake had formed. Prior to embarking on the trip, the professor had instructed his students to read nothing about the area’s geology. While he hadn’t explained the reasoning behind this, it was so that the students would come at their subject with no preconceived ideas. Immediately after the trip, however, and before writing their reports, they were to read every previous paper on the geology of Devil’s Lake, to put their research into the context of all the previous literature. From this experience, Hubbert learned the importance of reserving judgment on any scientific idea until after examining the primary evidence.
By age 26, Hubbert had accrued three scholarly publishing credits and had begun teaching a pioneering geophysics class at the University of Chicago, despite still being a student himself. By 36, he had earned his M.S. and Ph.D., taught at Columbia, published his first book and been the first to mathematically demonstrate the plasticity of rock in the Earth’s crust as well as correctly state Darcy’s Law. (The latter has to do with the movement of water underground, and it would turn out to have significant practical applications in oil and gas extraction.) Inman’s skills as a science writer shine in the parts where he explains the importance of these and other seminal contributions of Hubbert’s. He describes the principles involved in plain, engaging English.
The author also gives a fascinating, succinct history of the most subversive, but also perhaps least remembered, piece of Hubbert’s legacy: his involvement in the Technocracy movement. This began during the early ’30s, when Hubbert met a brilliant engineer and intellectual named Howard Scott. Scott was preoccupied with what he saw as the failure of our social system to keep pace with the revolution in our everyday energy usage permitted by fossil fuels. For example, the “price system” of standard economics was based on the scarcity of goods, but scarcity had become a thing of the past with the modern era’s bonanza of cheap, plentiful energy. Less and less human labor was required to provide for everyone’s needs, a circumstance that would eventually lead to mass unemployment (indeed, Scott had fairly accurately predicted the Great Depression). To solve this, Scott envisioned a form of governance whereby society would be led by scientists and technical experts who understood the physical laws governing the amounts of energy available to humankind.
Hubbert was captivated by Scott’s ideas and championed an effort to make them part of the public discourse. Thus began Technocracy, a movement that advocated the abolition of the price system and the replacement of money with “energy certificates.” Using this new form of currency, people would pay for goods according to how much energy it had taken to make them. In addition, the standard work week would be reduced to 16 hours, thanks to the continued efficiencies made possible by automation. Everyone who worked 16 hours a week would earn the same number of certificates, meaning no one would be paid more than anyone else. The certificates would expire after a year and wouldn’t be tradable, preventing the accumulation of wealth. At the height of its popularity in the early ’30s, Technocracy was a household word. It was also, by the early ’40s, deemed so threatening that a number of Technocrats found themselves the targets of investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Technocracy eventually faded into obscurity in the eyes of the general public, but it remains active today.
At the time that Hubbert made his famous 1956 prediction about the peak of America’s oil production, he was a chief consultant at Shell Oil Company. He presented his prediction during the keynote speech he gave for the American Petroleum Institute’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. Right as he was about to begin, he was taken aside to answer a call from Shell’s frantic public relations office. Inman nicely dramatizes this scene in Oracle’s prologue, using details from the transcript of an interview of Hubbert conducted years later. We get a fine sense of Hubbert’s calm resoluteness as he brushes aside the PR guy’s request for him to tone down his message by omitting “the sensational parts.” Hubbert flatly states that there is no sensationalism in his presentation. “Just straightforward analysis.”
As prescient as Hubbert was with regard to the peak and decline of oil, he was equally at the forefront of promoting alternative energy sources. When information on nuclear power was just starting to be declassified in the mid-’50s under the U.S. government’s “Atoms for Peace” program, Hubbert became an avid believer in nuclear energy’s potential. Though he had previously thought only hydroelectric power capable of replacing oil, Inman recounts how impressed Hubbert was by what he learned of the immense quantities of energy released by fission: “a little bit of uranium had a hell of a lot of energy,” he quotes him saying. (Hubbert’s involvement with nuclear energy began when the government selected him, based on his geological expertise, to advise on underground storage of radioactive wastes.)
However, by the early ’70s Hubbert grew fearful of nuclear due to the danger posed by its wastes, and came to embrace solar instead. Once again, this was a recommendation made far in advance of global peak oil, and thus it might have been a viable one if acted on promptly.
Another remarkable thing about Hubbert is that he bucked the trend among those in the fossil fuel industries to downplay or question mainstream climate science—and did so as early as 1981. (It should be noted that there have been prominent peak oil experts since his time who have shamelessly encouraged climate denialism.) In August 1981, Hubbert read the seminal Science article “ Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” by a team of NASA scientists led by James Hansen. In his research, Inman uncovered a copy of this article with underlining and notes by Hubbert. Of particular alarm to Hubbert, it seems, was the amount of flooding that could occur by 2100 due to rising sea levels if the warming trend in Earth’s atmosphere were to continue. Indeed, one of the passages Hubbert underlined was: “would flood 25 percent of Louisiana and Florida, 10 percent of New Jersey, and many other lowlands around the world.”
In his 1969 book Resources and Man, Hubbert predicted that global crude oil production would peak between 1990 and 2000.1 This ultimately turned out to be too pessimistic. Hubbert’s error was due in part to a paucity of accurate reserves data and also partly to the drop in oil consumption brought about by the ’70s oil shortages. Still, Hubbert wasn’t off by much. Citing statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA), Inman reports that global crude production peaked in 2006 at just over 70 million barrels per day (mbpd), and has since slumped to 68 mbpd.
This brings me to my sole criticism of Oracle, which is that Inman doesn’t go into sufficient detail about the other fuels besides crude that make up the world oil picture. As a result, readers without this knowledge are bound to wonder why the figures he cites differ from those mentioned elsewhere. For example, it’s been widely reported that total crude production was at 74 mbpd in 2006 and is at 78 mbpd today. But what these numbers actually represent is crude plus lease condensate, which many people are nonetheless in the habit of defining simply as crude.2 Then there’s total liquid fuels production, which is at around 93 mbpd today and may not yet have peaked. Even though this total includes non-oil components like biofuels and synthetic oil from tar sands, mainstream news organizations, presumably trying to shore up concerns about crude oil’s decline, routinely call it “oil production.” I would have liked to see Inman address these instances of obfuscation and differing definitions.
Apart from his scientific achievements and ideas on sustainability, Hubbert was also legendary for his curmudgeonly persona. Kenneth Deffeyes, a colleague of Hubbert’s at Shell, recalls that there was a running joke about him among his coworkers: “That Hubbert is a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.” Yet Inman shows how this harshness was motivated by noble aims. Hubbert felt passionately about the pursuit of scientific inquiry, believing it to be the sole thing separating modernity from the Dark Ages. Thus, he held both himself and others to a high standard of scientific rigor. As much as he often left others feeling maligned, he was equally hard on himself. In both cases, he was motivated by a desire to push everyone toward better work.
Hubbert died in 1989, more than a decade and a half too early to witness the advent of global peak oil. Oracle’s epilogue outlines the ways in which the oil situation has changed since then. It looks at how oil has been an evident motivator for American military involvement in the Persian Gulf, how economic recessions have repeatedly followed oil price spikes and how woefully wrong most economists and pundits have been in their predictions on oil. The epilogue also chronicles how, beginning in the late ’90s, a cohort of retired oil industry veterans like Deffeyes, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère began taking up Hubbert’s torch by issuing renewed warnings about the world oil peak, armed with the latest data. It goes on to describe how, in time, this latest crop of prophets was vindicated. Lastly, the discussion turns to the present, precarious state of the U.S. fracking boom, a subject Inman has been researching and writing about for years. Inman deftly shows how off-base all the hype about the quantities of tight oil and gas yet to be recovered actually is.
This is interesting timing for the publication of the first Hubbert biography. As those who follow peak oil are well aware, public interest in the issue has sadly waned in recent years, as a result of the complacency brought on by the temporary oil glut from fracking. Because of this, it unfortunately seems likely that The Oracle of Oil will have less of an impact on public opinion than it would have had coming out several years ago, when the peak oil movement was in its initial heyday. Yet it also seems equally likely that, just as our troubles with oil have only been delayed, so, too, will Inman’s book enjoy a delayed mass following.
1. Marion King Hubbert, “Energy Resources,” in Resources and Man: A Study and Recommendations, ed. The Committee on Resources and Man, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1969).
2. Kurt Cobb, “The great condensate con: Is the oil glut just about oil?,” Resource Insights, Jan. 17, 2016, http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-great-condensate-con-is-oil-glut.html (accessed Mar. 26, 2016).