The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist's Quest for a Sustainable Future

By Mason Inman, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, 413 pages, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-3932-3968-3

The preeminent 20th Century geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, well-known for predicting U.S. peak oil more than a decade in advance, devoted much of his intellectual life to analyzing limits of usable energy on Earth. In a 1981 paper in the American Journal of Physics, Hubbert recounts decades of controversial research on the world’s supply of exhaustible resources, juxtaposed with opposing views he encountered along the way. Hubbert contextualizes the debate by positing that human existence, past and future, will comprise essentially three epochs. The first, stretching back to the dawn of humanity, “… was characterized by a small human population, simple handicraft technology, a low level of energy utilization, and very slow rates of change.” But roughly two centuries ago humans entered into a new epoch of exponential growth in the use of unsustainable resources and simultaneously underwent a six-fold increase in population (more than seven-fold by 2016). But exponential growth is necessarily a transient phase. Hubbert offers compelling reasons fossil fuels are unlikely to meet the bulk of human energy needs for more than a few centuries, a spike on the time scale humans have inhabited the Earth. The post-exponential-growth epoch, according to Hubbert, will settle once again into one of slow rates of change, but initially with a large human population, a high technological level and a high rate of energy use.

Hubbert suggests, “Perhaps the foremost problem facing mankind at present is that of how to make the transition from the present exponential-growth phase to the near steady state of the future by as non-catastrophic a progression as possible.”

With humanity facing related risks of drastic climate change, pandemics, global shortages of food and water, and use of weapons of mass destruction, a smooth landing is tenuous. As we peer into a future that will look very different from the present, Mason Inman’s comprehensive biography of Hubbert is timely, important and welcome.

Inman recounts Hubbert’s fascinating times and impactful career, which spanned academia, industry, and government. Hubbert was educated at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and taught at Columbia in the 1930s amid the intellectual dynamism of New York City during the upheaval of the Great Depression. In 1943 he moved to Shell Oil in Houston, the center of the universe for oil (at least before the peak in U.S. production). Hubbert became an iconoclastic problem solver much valued for his unparalleled geologic insights by an industry with an unquenchable thirst for greater oil production. But Hubbert repeatedly galled colleagues and superiors with predictions not only that peak production would occur much sooner than others believed but also that the downhill would likely be as steep as the uphill. After election to the National Academy of Sciences, he finished his career at the U.S. Geological Survey, once again as resident gadfly with a decade-long intellectual, and eventually personal, feud over peak oil with the Survey’s director. Hubbert was often tapped for high level scientific advisory committees, where he unflinchingly used compelling scientific analysis to champion unpopular ideas. For 50 plus years Hubbert remained a disagreeable realist who refused to suffer fools gladly. But, Inman argues persuasively, despite his many pessimistic predictions and hardboiled demeanor, Hubbert was surprisingly utopian in long term outlook.

In the 1930s Hubbert was a founding member of the Technocracy movement which advocated governmental policies based on technical considerations such as efficiency and that the monetary system be replaced by energy certificates, equivalent in total amount to a national energy budget, distributed equally. The Technocracy movement gained some popularity during the Great Depression, though it was largely supplanted by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hubbert wrote a technical manifesto delineating a visionary Technocratic platform. But the movement’s leader, Howard Scott, turned out to be a charlatan and many early supporters broke ranks. Hubbert held on longer than most, eventually disassociating himself in 1949. But he never abandoned the ideal of an efficient and just steady-state society, which influenced his lifelong concern for how humans would replace fossil fuels with sustainable energy.

Inman provides thoughtful explanations, at a level appropriate for a general audience, of difficult scientific topics to which Hubbert made major contributions, including structural geology, mechanics of earth deformation, underground hydrology, fracture dynamics, scaling laws in geology, and hydrodynamic trapping of oil. Although Inman omits any equations, as one expects in a popular biography, he makes excellent use of graphs to explain key ideas about peak oil. Inman includes a valuable epilogue on developments after Hubbert’s death in 1989, such as increased production of “unconventional” oil and recent low oil prices, in the context of evaluating Hubbert’s prediction that world oil production would peak early in the 21st Century.

There is also a fascinating account of Hubbert’s work on geological disposal of radioactive waste and how he went from being an advocate of nuclear energy to a skeptic due to safety issues being swept under the rug by the Atomic Energy Commission. Similarly fascinating is the story of how Hubbert worked out the theory behind hydraulic fracturing when it first came into use in the 1950s, although he didn’t fully anticipate the magnitude of gas and oil production from fracking half a century later.

Inman raises the timely question of what it means for predictions of extraordinarily complex phenomena such as resource depletion to be right or wrong. The same question is worth pondering as we try to understand predictions about global warming.

With scientists under attack from climate change deniers, it is valuable to consider the battles of an earlier warrior who was willing to speak inconvenient truths, often at great professional risk. Those of us working to bring about a sustainable future can take inspiration from Hubbert’s life and work as described in Inman’s highly informative biography. Hubbert himself concludes in his 1981 AJP paper, “If we succeed, we could achieve a state of wellbeing that could provide an environment for the flowering of a great civilization. Should we fail, the consequences are not pleasant to contemplate.”

Richard Wiener
Senior Program Director
Research Corporation for Science Advancement

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.