Type the words "peak oil" into the Treehugger search window and you will come up with dozens of posts referencing M. King Hubbert, the geologist who projected back in the 50s that the easy oil was going to run out, that it was going to get harder and harder to find the stuff, and it was going to get more and more expensive to get out of the ground. For many years it seemed that he was right; these days, when gas is back to around two bucks a gallon he is somewhat out of fashion, as people ask “Peak oil? what peak oil?" In the Financial Times, Ed Crooks notes that many now call Hubbert a punchline rather than a visionary.
So perhaps timing isn’t great for the release of Mason Inman’s new book, The Oracle of Oil, a biography of Marion King Hubbert, who turns out to be perhaps neither a punchline nor an oracle, but still a very interesting character indeed. He doesn't seem like a geologist at all, running with the smartest people in Greenwich Village. He was one of the founders of the Technocracy movement that believed that the world would be a better place if it was run by engineers. (It still exists, and is not such a crazy idea). Hubbert is smart, interested in everything, and no doubt would have had an impact in whatever he did. But after World War II he ended up in the oil business, working for Shell Oil.
In 1948, Hubbert told a conference that "fossil fuels were essentially a fixed storehouse of energy which we are drawing on at a phenomenal rate” and in fact that consumption was growing even faster than the population. He noted way back then that there would be many sources of oil; the easy to drill conventional crude, offshore oil, the Canadian tar sands, and shale oil. But they all shared one characteristic: they start at zero, rise to one or more peaks, and then decline, falling again to zero. "How soon the decline may set in is not possible to say, Nevertheless the higher the peak to which the production curve rises, the sooner and sharper will be the decline."
Many of the versions of Hubbert's Peak are really dire; A favourite is this one from Balfour and Associates in 2005 that shows us in the confusion stage now, followed by chaos and collapse and basically the End of the world as we know it as we slide down the slope from the Peak. And another:
But it doesn't have to be that way. Hubbert was an optimist, and believed that there were answers in other technologies like nuclear or solar power would fill in the gap.
Inman acknowledges that Hubbert was not actually an oracle, and that some of his estimates have been proven wrong. And indeed, right now the world is flooded in oil thanks to fracking and new drilling technologies. Overall, we my not have reached peak supply, given the different sources of oil out there. But people are buying SUVs again, and according to Economics 101, if there is more demand than there is supply, then the prices will go back up.
Or not. We may soon be reaching peak demand; cities like Amsterdam are considering the banning of gasoline powered cars and Tesla motors has people lining up for years for their more affordable electric cars. It may well be that the price of oil stays below the cost of production for the oil sands and the frackers for some time to come, and they may all follow the coal companies into bankruptcy.
Inman has written a terrific book because it is really not about peak oil; it is about a fascinating man living in interesting times, and Inman captures a sense of both. Unlike so many Peakers who see the end of the world around the corner, Hubbert remained an optimist and a visionary, writing in 1976:
We are entering into something new. It could be a cataclysm but it doesn't have to be. It need not even be an energy crisis. The transition from exponential growth over to a stabilized state, or non-growth, need not be a state of intellectual decay. In fact, it could easily be a renaissance- an intellectual Renaissance,a golden age.
This is so prescient of Schumacher "small is beautiful" steady state economics beloved of so many environmentalists, and a totally different way of climbing up Hubbert's Peak.
Notwithstanding the current pique with peak oil, the arguments made in Inman's book remain persuasive. Hubbert may not have anticipated every detail about alternative supplies but he knew they were there, and that they would follow the same curve as conventional oil. Inman subtitles the book "A maverick geologist's quest for a sustainable future" which Hubbert knew would not be built on fossil fuels. I suspect he will be proven right about that too.
More at Mason Inman’s The Oracle of Oil site.
While looking for images for this review, I discovered Stuart McMillen’s wonderful graphic biography version of the M. King Hubbert peak oil story. It is also worth a read.