The man and the movement – is it dead?
This week we’re going to look at a life that shaped energy expectations, a whole social movement, and American military policy in the Middle East. Finally, there is a biography of M. King Hubbert, the man who warned oil companies and the world about Peak Oil. We’ll ask author Mason Inman about the man, his legacy, and what it means now, in this brief time of oil glut.
Then I’ll check in with Australian extreme weather specialist Lisa Alexander, to get her measure of the record-setting Indian heat wave now cooling to the monsoon rains.
ENERGY NEWS BRIEF: A WIN IN ILLINOIS AND NEW WORRIES IN CALIFORNIA
First, a couple of news notes:
Two weeks ago we talked about Exelon, America’s largest power company demanding more subsidy to keep it’s aging reactors going in the State of Illinois. With no public support, and no action from the legislature, Exelon has now announced two Illinois nuclear plants will close.
The Quad Cities reactors were built in 1972, using the same faulty General Electric Mark I reactor as the four reactors which blew up at Fukushima, Japan. One more of those gone, with 22 left running in the United States.
The other Illinois nuclear plant, the Clinton reactor was built later in 1987, with a different design, but was also plagued with safety issues.
Illinois has not and will not go dark. Electricity from cheaper natural gas plants, and increasingly wind power delivered from the mid-West, will power the state, with far less chance of an accident that lasts for thousands of years.
The late anti-nuclear campaigner Michael Mariotte battled against these reactors, including on Radio Ecoshock, and now he’s won.
Over to California. You remember the giant natural gas reservoir that spewed methane into the skies of California, and the atmosphere? The Aliso Canyon storage facility is still closed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has expressed concerns that California could experience rolling black-outs this summer, as hotter days mean more power demand for air-conditioning. That’s in a state drowning in potential solar power sites.
STORMS IN EUROPE
Of course, no sooner did the India heat wave give way, than Europe was hit with another extreme rainfall event. Parts of Paris flooded. The historic Louvre Museum had to move some of it’s priceless collection. People were swept away and died in the same extreme rain system in Germany. That’s following a storm that dropped over 300,000 lightening strikes in Europe.
I could bounce from one extreme weather event to the next, until Radio Ecoshock becomes a kind of weather porn station. Except I try to find the climate science behind these abnormal twists, when major media fails to tell us what’s causing it all.
Not this week. We have the story of M. King Hubbert, the man who changed so many of our lives.
M. KING HUBBERT: “THE ORACLE OF OIL”
Oil, gas and coal will not last forever. A civilization built on those fuels cannot last forever either. But for how long and then what? That’s the question asked by the Peak Oil movement, – after it was answered by one of the energy giants of the Twentieth Century.
In the 1950’s, while working for Shell Oil, the American geologist and geophysicist M. King Hubbert described the curve of fossil fuels. After being ignored, he was rediscovered in the 1970’s. But few people know much about him, or really understand his theory. Only now has the first authoritative biography of King Hubbert emerged. It’s by Mason Inman, an award-winning science writer who’s been published in everything from Scientific American to Wired Magazine. The title is “The Oracle of Oil, a maverick geologist’s quest for a sustainable future.”
Author Mason Inman
IS PEAK OIL DEAD?
Peak Oil spawned a world wide movement holding international conferences. Now it seems we are awash in oil and gas. Is peak oil dead? Inman and I discuss this.
Was Hubbert wrong? “No” says Inman. Conventional oil production did peak in 2006, and that makes up 90% of the oil we use now. Unconventional oil from fracking or oil sands has increased, but they are still marginal. But fracking can have a big impact on prices by adding content to the base of conventional oil.
Cheap credit is also a factor in increased oil production. Companies have not been able to boost their production of conventional oil. The biggest companies now accept it won’t go higher, as does the International Energy Agency. The major oil producers are optimistic to say the conventional oil will be flat at the current plateau.
In the interview, Inman tells us you can download the Epilogue from his book, which talks about the afterlife of Hubbert’s theories after his death, for free, by signing up for his email mailing list at Oracle of Oil book site.
My opinion is that Peak Oil is still influencing the energy market. For example, the most expensive ways to get oil, like the Canadian Tar Sands, are suffering with low prices, and investment is moving away from them. Even when the price of oil goes up again, I think that lesson has been learned. The Canadian oil sands, and other heavy oil projects will not get the level of funding they expected.
Fracking, on the other hand, is still going, but with less new activity. It’s lurking. As soon as oil goes above about $60 a barrel, fracking can come roaring back any time. But as Richard Heinberg points out, just as with conventional oil, the sweet spots of easy fracking may have already come and gone. It costs more and more to get less and less, so that fracked oil, and fracked gas will also peak at some point, with gas peaking later, as Hubbert predicted.
Meanwhile, the Peak Oil movement seems in hibernation, which is dangerous in two ways: (1) the wild rush to pump even more low priced oil will deplete the limited resources even faster and (b) with the threat of oil depletion out of the headlines (and consumer minds) there will be less pressure to change to clean energy sources.
LIMITS TO GROWTH
Hubbert was very stubborn (which was good and bad). He kept going on his messages, even when others were not listening. He did not get bitter about his difficulties, or jealous of others. When theLimits to Growth report got so much attention, he had already been talking about those issues for years. The authors of Limits to Growth, especially Dennis Meadows, got inspiration from Hubbert – and Inman talked to Meadows about that. Apparently, Inman tells us, Meadows asked Hubbert if he wanted to work together, but Hubbert did not. He was not always a cooperative thinker.
Hubbert supported “the Limits to Growth” report.
HUBBERT’S THEORY AND POLITICS
Reagan’s energy adviser talked about Hubbert as a pessimist who said we wouldn’t find more oil. Hubbert didn’t say that.
Hubbert had more influence during the Carter Administration. Inman spoke to James R. Schlesinger who was in the Carter Admin, and said they were aware of his work, and wanted to honor him with a medal (didn’t happen, James was fired first).
The Carter Doctrine said any threat to the Middle East would be a threat to U.S. military security, and U.S. would protect it militarily.
MORE INFORMATION ON HUBBERT AND RESEARCH SOURCES
For further research, these are notes I received from the author Mason Inman:
Here is a podcast with Inman on Chris Martenson’s show “Peak Prosperity” – but I warn you, they talk more about other current affairs than about Hubbert and his life. (Podcast May 7, 2016)
That same Chris Martenson podcast is available on Inman on Martenson You tube.
KEY PERIODS IN M. KING HUBBERT’S LIFE: THE QUICK NOTES FROM MASON INMAN
According to Inman, the key periods in Hubbert’s life were:
1930s: involvement with Technocracy, forming his ideas on the role of energy in society.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technocracy[My comment: In 1930’s New York, King Hubbert became involved in both academia and industry – even before finishing his PHD. During the Great Depression, Hubbert was one of the prime founders of a theory and movement called “technocracy”. Mason Inman gives us a quick primer on technocracy in this interview. As a mass movement, Technocracy is almost dead now, but still has an office in Ferndale, Washington State, with archives. Here is the official Technocracy web site.
I’m particularly interested in the Technocracy idea to substitute energy certificates for money. Maybe this could be one solution to drive a reduction in emissions, if we actually pay and get paid in carbon emission allowances.
1950s-1960s: issuing forecasts, battling to get them taken seriously
1970s-1980s: being proved right about US oil, being heralded as a “prophet” and an “oracle”—and yet seeing how difficult it was to get people to engage in a long-term energy transition
1990s-today (all since Hubbert’s death): the book’s epilogue brings the story up to today, with the so-called shale revolution, which I think proves how eager most people are to scrape the bottom of the barrel rather than make a transition.
As a sample of this book, you can read this epilogue from the book for free, if you sign up to Mason Inman’s mailing list Oracle of Oil web site.
American author and Professor Michael Klare Michael Klare article Common Dreams “peak demand” will come before “peak oil” ever develops! In Common Dreams he writes:
“According to experts Thijs Van de Graaf and Aviel Verbruggen, overall world peak demand could be reached as early as 2020.”
WIKIPEDIA ON HUBBERT
Hubbert was born in San Saba, Texas. He attended the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. in 1926, his M.S. in 1928, and his Ph.D in 1937, studying geology, mathematics, and physics. He worked as an assistant geologist for the Amerada Petroleum Company for two years while pursuing his Ph.D., additionally teaching geophysics at Columbia University. He also served as a senior analyst at the Board of Economic Warfare. He joined the Shell Oil Company in 1943, retiring from that firm in 1964. After he retired from Shell, he became a senior research geophysicist for the United States Geological Survey until his retirement in 1976. He also held positions as a professor of geology and geophysics at Stanford University from 1963 to 1968, and as a professor at UC Berkeley from 1973 to 1976.
Hubbert was also an avid technocrat. He co-founded Technocracy Incorporated with Howard Scott. Hubbert wrote a study course that was published without authorship called Technocracy Study Course, the precedent document of that group which advocates a non-market economics form of energy accounting, in contrast to the current Price System method. Hubbert was a member of the Board of Governors, and served as Secretary of education to that organisation.”
WIKI HAS THIS EXCELLENT UNSOURCED QUOTE ALLEGEDLY BY HUBBERT:
“I was in New York in the 30’s. I had a box seat at the depression. I can assure you it was a very educational experience. We shut the country down because of monetary reasons. We had manpower and abundant raw materials. Yet we shut the country down. We’re doing the same kind of thing now but with a different material outlook. We are not in the position we were in 1929–30 with regard to the future. Then the physical system was ready to roll. This time it’s not. We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.”
You can watch M. King Hubbert speak briefly in this You tube clip, from 1976.
HERE IS AN INTRIGUING VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH HUBBERT, WITH MY NOTES
The video is titled: “Health Facilities and the Energy Crisis – A Conversation with M. King Hubbert” It was filmed in 1976 by WETA-TV and published on You tube Dec 19 2012 by Technocracy.
Despite the title, this interview has practically nothing to say about the health institutions. It is really a full exposition of Hubbert’s theories, complete with many graphics of the world energy supply, and his curves of depletion for coal, oil and gas. It’s well worth the watch!
Here are my notes:
3 min: energy is like water: it can flow along, and change forms, without adding to the amount of energy. It could go from light to heat for example.
Hubbert presents a chart showing the total energy system for the globe. It shows the sun is the largest energy source, with a vast potential.
6:30 He describes the process of creating oil (or gas) through plants that do not have enough oxygen to decay, become peat, get covered with soil, get compressed and become oil or gas.
7:50 he describes the status and process of coal as an energy source. Total coal production in the United States is varied over time, oscillating over the decades, up and down, except anthracite, which peaked around 1920. It declined ever since. “This illustrates the complete cycle of exhaustion of a fossil fuel”.
9:47 Hubbert does the same for the production of oil in the United States. It’s continually rising line starting about 1860 to about 1971.
10:48 How to develop a curve and prediction for the production of oil. His explanation of using the curve is a bit complicated.
12:46 How to construct the complete cycle (he again gives coal as an example). He shows a graph of world coal reserves by large geographical region (like Africa). Asia, including the USSR has more than half the world’s coal. North America has about 30% of the total, with 2/3 in the United States.
14:40 He describes using the graph with known recoverable reserves. The rate of production can go higher, but that shortens the curve of the depletion time in the future. The amount also depends on how deep the coal is before it becomes too expensive to get.
The middle 80% is what matters – the end curve will go on for a long time, but with very low (perhaps almost inconsequential) fossil fuels.
16:45 Hubbert explains his 1956 theory of peak oil. The general thinking was there wouldn’t be an oil shortage “any time soon” or in the time of his grandchildren. The depletion happens gradually, as more oil is found. But the date of the peak is around 1995, if we use the higher estimates of US oil reserves.
20 min “That prediction proved to be rather startling, and some would say ‘prescient’.” Hubbert says in 1976. He says the peak date actually occurred in 1970.
21 min The important 80% bracket lasts about 67 years, that is, within one human lifetime. The natural gas curve happens a bit later than oil.
22 min Hubbert shows a graphic of world crude oil production. It contains what has been produced and the reserves. Until 1975 the U.S. was the highest producing country in the world, despite having somewhat small reserves to start with.
23 min The complete time cycle for the world, the estimated peak would occur around 1995, the 80% middle spread is from 1960 to 2020 – “that presumes an orderly resolution”.
24:50 To appreciate the role of fossil fuels in history, he shows a graph from 5,000 years ago to 5,000 years from now, and the fossil fuel age is just a very brief spike, “a very brief epoch”.
25:40 Our options for the future: water power, solar power, wind, and he likes nuclear power.
26 min. He discusses tidal power, and finds the total amount is not very large.
27:20 Hubbert talks about nuclear in the United States (it was in a building phase in 1976). He discusses the hard to get Uranium 235, which is rare. He thinks it will become scarce in the US. in 10-15 years (after 1976) and in the world 10-15 years after that.
Hubbert finds a concern in what to do with nuclear waste, which can stay radioactive for 1,000 years. What about accidents, saboteurs, wars “we are dealing with a very hazardous thing”. Most people wish we had another way to produce power, he says.
30:20 thermal power – including the largest geothermal plant in the world in California (in 1976)
31 His estimate of the amount of solar input, and says we know how to capture it. He demonstrates a little machine converting light into electric power. He’s a solar fan. “We have the technology right now, we know how to do it.”
33 min: “what does the future look like?” (asks host) Hubbert shows a graphic “Human Affairs in a Time Perspective”. Past doubling rates for population was about 32,000 years, but we are slated to double (from 1976) in 35 years.
35 If we drop in our energy level, then we have to scale back the human population, Hubbert says.
35:40 “we are in a little window of history”
Then after 36 minutes he gets to the impact on health facilities, when there will be a tight situation for hospitals, “they better take a very serious look at solar energy for their institutions.”
ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE ON THE INDIAN HEAT WAVE – DR. LISA ALEXANDER
The gigantic and record-setting heat wave over India has started to break up, as the Monsoon rains begin to develop in the South. The previous week, the heat moved from Northwest India, including the Punjab, toward the Northeastern Indian states. Is the 2016 heat wave in Pakistan and India a beginning example of what we can expect in a warming world?
Here to help is Dr. Lisa Alexander, an extreme weather specialist and senior researcher at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, in Australia.
Dr. Lisa Alexander
I know Australia had to add new heat zones to it’s maps a couple of years ago. But I wonder if many places in the world will experience temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or 49 degrees Celsius. While Alexander tells us that kind of extreme is common in some parts of the world, it is now coming more often. And as in India, new absolute heat records for different areas continue to be set.
Lisa, also chairs a World Meteorological Organization special team on climate risk. We talk about the WMO’s role and relationship to national meteorology authorities.
As Australians know too well, heat deaths increase when night-time temperatures don’t cool off enough. Lisa tells us this relates to human physiology, the need to cool down core body temperatures. The same factor applies to the fact that humans can take a day or two of extreme heat, but just adding one or two more days can create a public health emergency.
I’ve been looking into a new study published in the journal Climatic Change. The title is: “Benefits of mitigation for future heat extremes“. Lisa gives us some key points from that paper – and the message for all of us.
You know it’s interesting: a survey of media coverage, India heat wave about this Indian heat wave found few Western sources, including the BBC and CNN, did not mention climate change. Indian newspapers and Indian politicians talked more about the climate connection.