The Oracle of Oil — review

Oracle of Oil cover Mason InmanThe Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future. By Mason Inman. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

M. King Hubbert was a prophetic 20th century American oil geologist best known for his predictions about peak oil — the maximum rate of oil production. But the people who claim to “refute” Hubbert have usually not even understood what he was saying. He expressed his views in various technical papers and writings, in lectures, and in private conversations — in short, in his life. Mason Inman has written the first and so far the only full-length biography of Hubbert. It is absolutely essential to anyone who wants to understand what Hubbert was about, which can only be done by looking at his life and thinking as a whole.

Hubbert is justly remembered for his 1956 paper “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” in which he predicted that the United States would reach the maximum point of oil extraction by about 1970 — a prescient prediction which materialized when U. S. oil production declined after that date. But Hubbert is much too complex to be pinned to a single paper. He was constantly modifying his own ideas, and in later years substantially altered the views he expressed in his 1956 paper. He had a wide range of interests, including politics, social theory, and limits to growth.

In his younger years, he was a leader in the “Technocracy” movement — a now largely forgotten movement active in the first half of the 20th century. Its underlying principle was that science should determine public policy. This principle may seem obvious, but we only need to look at the current debate over climate change to see the implications: policy should be determined on the basis of science, not vice versa. Hubbert strongly supported the central concept of Technocracy, though later in life he fell out with the movement over various practical disagreements. But the U. S. government regarded Technocracy with suspicion. They weren’t sure whether it was communist, or fascist, or what, but it sounded subversive. Hubbert’s involvement with Technocracy was a problem for his work that required any kind of security clearance.

Hubbert never formulated his predictions of peak oil in a single, definitive way, and therefore people claiming to “refute” it are likely on the wrong track from the beginning. One of Hubbert’s key ideas was that discoveries of oil must obviously precede the production of oil — and therefore that we could infer what the future production might be from the past record of discoveries. But this idea actually came after his celebrated 1956 paper predicting a peak of U. S. oil production. Another key modification of his 1956 paper was his attitude towards nuclear power. Originally he thought that nuclear energy would be the backup resource for oil; when oil became too difficult to find, nuclear energy would be there. But about 1973, frustrated with the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission’s attitude towards nuclear waste (they ignored his suggestions on the subject), he became convinced that despite significant technological difficulties in building out solar, the future was clearly in solar power.

Hubbert was both influenced by, and a key influence on, the book The Limits to Growth, which appeared in 1972. He corresponded with and met Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of this book, and Hubbert and Meadows both saw that Hubbert’s work had clear implications for the whole problem of ultimate economic limits. Oil was only one resource, albeit a key resource, and we needed to understand the problems with oil in the broader context of overall limits to growth.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Hubbert’s ideas to say that Hubbert ignored “unconventional oil” (such as from the tar sands or fracking), or that he didn’t foresee the economic considerations that might drive supply, or that he thought that oil production would form a bell-shaped curve. Hubbert actually pioneered research into fracking and saw clearly that oil could not be isolated from the other factors in the economy.

This book is an important corrective to misinformed ideas about Hubbert, and thus also an indirect response to the techno-optimists who foresee decades of plenty of oil. They are playing a shell game, frantically shuffling economic and physical resources around to create the illusion of endless growth. The reality is that the world’s future was fundamentally derailed by oil shortages about a decade ago; world production of conventional oil peaked in 2006. These shortages triggered the Great Recession of 2008, from which we have only experienced a rather anemic recovery. This recovery came only after billions of dollars of debt (“quantitative easing”) and frantic environmental destruction, as the more expensive unconventional oil has been ramped up. Since then we’ve seen the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more production from the Alberta tar sands, and widespread fracking, not to mention accelerated climate change. To pretend that unconventional oil is a solution to the problem of oil depletion is to ignore the problem of limits to growth, which no amount of debt, denial, or environmental destruction can cure.

Mason Inman’s excellent book helps us to better appreciate Hubbert’s life, as well as shedding new light on the whole problem of peak oil. Hubbert’s most important contribution was not a single paper or a single idea. It was the insight that scientific analysis, rather than wishful thinking, should be the basis for our actions relating to the future of resources on earth.