The Oracle of Oil
An Excerpt From the Book
In The Oracle of Oil, Mason Inman examines the history of “peak oil” and the planet’s ever-diminishing resources through the story of M. King Hubbert, the geologist who first realized oil’s days were ultimately numbered. In a companion Q+A with Nexus Media, Inman shares his insights on the future of oil in the age of climate change. Read an excerpt from the book below.
Marion King Hubbert had been preparing for this moment for months—or in some ways, for thirty years, nearly his entire adult life. On March 8, 1956, at about ten in the morning, he was sitting on the stage in a long, narrow hall, the top-floor ballroom of San Antonio’s Plaza Hotel, facing an audience of some five hundred oilmen. At this meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, Hubbert would give the keynote speech. The day of his talk he had taken extra care with his attire and had tamed his bristly hair, slicking it back from his large forehead.
He had planned to make a bold prediction. He’d tell the audience that, based on an in-depth analysis he’d done of US oil resources, the nation was approaching a crisis. American oil production—the rate at which it extracted crude oil from the ground—had been soaring ever higher for a century. But according to Hubbert’s calculations, this trend would soon end. Within ten to fifteen years—by the early 1970s at the latest—he expected US oil production would peak. For the whole world, he figured, this peak would come later, around the turn of the twenty-first century. After each of these peaks, production would likely dwindle, with less and less oil available year after year. The peak wouldn’t mean the end of oil, but it would mark a crucial turning point, from an age of abundance to one of scarcity.
Just before he was to step up to the stout wood podium and deliver his speech, someone signaled for him to get up and leave the room. He rushed out of the hall to find an urgent call waiting from his employer, Shell Oil. On the other end of the line was an executive assistant in the public relations office in New York. Headquarters wanted Hubbert to change his message.
“Couldn’t you tone it down some?” the man pleaded. “Couldn’t you take the sensational parts out?”
“Nothing sensational about it,” Hubbert replied. “Just straightforward analysis.”
“That part about reaching the peak of oil production in ten or fifteen years, it’s just utterly ridiculous.”
Oil is so completely woven into modern society, it can be difficult to grasp how dependent we are on it. We’ve generally assumed that it will continue to be plentiful for the foreseeable future. On that assumption, we’ve planned our cities—and often let them sprawl without much planning. Our daily commutes are fueled by oil, along with our globetrotting vacations. Our shopping carts are filled with groceries from around the world, thanks to oil. In 2015, Americans burned about 20 million barrels a day, or nearly 7 billion barrels a year: that is, each American consumes about two and a half gallons each day.
Oil has been with us more than a century and a half, ever since an 1859 well in Pennsylvania kicked off the oil age. For the past half-century, oil has been the world’s number-one fuel, consumed more voraciously than coal or natural gas and far more than all the other alternatives. Most of the oil consumed worldwide is known as conventional crude oil—the kind where you can drill a hole in the ground and pump it out. For the past decade, starting in 2006, production of plain old crude has been stuck roughly on a plateau, at around 70 million barrels a day—despite oil prices having soared to record highs. So the current director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, has declared, “The age of cheap oil is over.”
Since 2006 increases in total world oil production have been entirely reliant on what the industry calls “unconventional” sources. One of the oldest of these unconventional methods—employed by the Nazis during the Second World War and still in use in South Africa—is to turn coal into liquid fuel. Later came the rise of tar sands, principally in Canada, recently surpassing 2 million barrels a day. Biofuels—such as ethanol made from corn and diesel made from soy—supply more than a million additional barrels a day.
The latest unconventional source is known as shale oil, opened up by hydraulic fracturing. This technique, also called fracking, has been around for decades. (Incidentally, in the 1950s, Hubbert was the first one to correctly explain how fracking works.) Fracking has recently seen a huge expansion. Coupled with advances in horizontal drilling, it has been applied to tens of thousands of wells in the United States, and in less than five years, it boosted the nation’s production by more than 4 million barrels per day, nearly doubling it and turning around a decades-long decline. The reversal was so dramatic, many called this boom “the shale revolution.”
Just since 2010 investors have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into developing unconventional oil. Yet all these alternatives combined still make up only a small fraction of the world’s total oil supply, less than one-tenth. The vast majority of the world’s oil still comes from conventional sources, which have been struggling just to maintain their production rates and have even started to decline slightly.
The past several years have been a bumpy ride for the world economy. After a long run of high oil prices came the “Great Recession” in 2008 and its lasting aftermath, the worst economic calamity in several decades. When oil prices crashed in 2014, the weak economy was a major factor. These economic woes and the roller coaster of oil prices may both be symptoms of a world near the crest of oil production, unable to boost production substantially at prices that society is willing or able to bear.
M. King Hubbert tried, throughout his career, to forecast limits to oil production. More broadly, he tried to warn the world about other such limits and to point the way toward a sustainable future.
Today experts still argue over whether Hubbert’s oil forecasts were correct—an issue that, it turns out, is no simple matter to decide. It depends partly on cutting through the misrepresentations and glosses of both his critics and his supporters, to understand what he did and did not say. But more deeply, it depends on what it means for a prediction to be correct. It’s one thing to predict the outcome of an election, where there’s one clear winner. Foretelling the long-term future of the modern world’s top fuel is a messier endeavor. To be considered correct (or at least useful), does a prediction have to nail every detail? Is it enough to be close?
When discussing the nature of predictions, Hubbert liked to tell the story of Croesus, who in the sixth century B.C. ruled the kingdom of Lydia, in modern-day Turkey. When Croesus was considering launching a war to topple the neighboring Persian Empire, he sent messengers to the Athenian temple at Delphi to consult its oracles. These women soothsayers, who sat in the temple’s basement and went into a trance before delivering their forecasts, gave Croesus this prophecy: If he sent his army against Persia, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus took this as a positive sign and went ahead. The oracles were right—but the kingdom that fell was Croesus’s own. All too often, Hubbert pointed out, predictions for the future are like the oracles’: vague and open to varying interpretations.
There was another part to the story that Hubbert didn’t tell. After losing the war, Croesus was distraught. Before taking the oracles’ advice, he’d put them to a test. He’d sent messengers to several cities—in -modern-day Greece, Libya, and other nearby lands. On a prearranged day and time, the messengers asked the local prophets, sages, and diviners what Croesus was doing at that moment. On that day, he chose to do something odd. He boiled a tortoise and a lamb in a bronze pot. Only the oracles at Delphi gave the correct answer. From then on, Croesus trusted them—until his downfall.
Today we have much the same attitude toward prediction and those who predict. We want oracles, people whose predictions we can trust, even if we don’t understand how they arrive at their conclusions. Like Croesus, we welcome predictions that sound like good news, and we don’t stop to ask questions. Later, if things go badly, we feel betrayed by our trusted seers.
Hubbert didn’t mind being the bearer of bad news. But throughout most of his career, his warnings were ignored or dismissed. And even when his forecasts began to be taken seriously, his followers didn’t pay much attention to his methods or his caveats. Rather than engaging with his forecasts and building on them or constructively critiquing them, most of his followers and his critics treated him like an oracle, one whose forecasts could be either believed or dismissed but whose methods were unfathomable.
But Hubbert was no oracle, of course. He was a scientist. When making predictions, he always presented his data and reasoning for anyone to examine for themselves. It was the same approach he used in all his scientific studies—a body of work that earned him a reputation as “-twentieth-century geology’s Renaissance man.” A couple of years after his death, a 1991 report from the National Academy of Sciences summed up his legacy thus: “This outspoken maverick led the earth sciences kicking and screaming from a largely observational and descriptive style to a more quantitative, experimental, predictive science.”
Despite the solid reputation Hubbert earned for his geological work, many of his colleagues looked askance at his predictions for oil. Even fewer bought into his critique of growth—both of populations and economies. Despite such skepticism, throughout his life Hubbert tried to point the way toward a radically different future. He envisioned a world without growth and with a stable world global population, stable levels of consumption, and an environment that, rather than deteriorating, was likewise stable.
Making a transition from our current ways to such a steady-state society would, Hubbert believed, require an intellectual revolution. If humanity managed it, he hoped it would lead to an equal and just society, allowing for lives of leisure and learning. It would be a cultural renaissance unlike any the world had ever experienced.
Hubbert’s oil forecasts earned him a reputation as a pessimist. In fact he was a utopian.
Excerpted from The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future by Mason Inman. Copyright 2016 by Mason Inman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This story is made available by Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.