What “The Oracle of Oil” Could Teach a Warming World
The future of oil in the age of climate change
Visionary geologist M. King Hubbert met both ridicule and praise for investigating the reality of “peak oil” and the ever-shrinking supply of traditional energy sources. It’s a complex tale that Mason Inman reveals in his book, The Oracle of Oil, with lessons for how society can move forward without running short of fuel.
You can read an excerpt from his book here. Nexus Media sat down with Inman to learn about Hubbert, peak oil and the future of fossil fuels in the age of climate change.
From the vantage of history, how did the controversy surrounding the concept of peak oil compare to the politicization of climate change in recent decades?
The controversy over peak oil has a lot in common with controversy over climate change. Both peak oil and climate change are bad news to most people, in the sense that they don’t want these phenomena to occur.
To explain what most people mean when they refer to “peak oil,” they are talking about how the world’s oil production must, at some point, reach a peak and then decline. Or the path may be messier, with multiple peaks. Either way, oil production has to eventually dwindle to nothing simply because oil is a finite resource. Already, long before we’ve run out of oil, we’re having to turn to sources that are more and more difficult to access, like tar sands as well as shale oil opened up by fracking.
These developments were foreseen, decades ago, by M. King Hubbert, a geologist who’s the subject of my book, The Oracle of Oil. Starting in the 1950s—while working at Shell Oil, and one of the oil industry’s top researchers—Hubbert began issuing forecasts for oil production in the United States and the world. His main focus was on conventional oil – the kind where you drill a well and oil comes out, without having to do more intensive work like fracking or cooking the rock.
Hubbert warned that conventional oil production in the United States would peak around 1970, and was proved right – and the country found itself in the midst of oil shocks from high prices. He also warned that production of conventional oil worldwide would probably peak around the turn of the millennium – and he was right about that, with the peak coming in 2006. Since then, despite high oil prices for about a decade, conventional oil production has declined.
People didn’t want to hear Hubbert’s warnings, just as today there are a lot of climate change deniers. A lot of people say that fracking has yielded so much oil that it means the “death of peak oil.”
All I can say is, don’t believe the hype. Take a hard look at the data, and look at the models underlying forecasts. As I described in a news feature for the journal Nature, “The Fracking Fallacy,” many recent forecasts for fracking may be too high, forecasting production much higher than will actually come to fruition.
In your book, the philosophical concept of sustainability parallels quantitative, scientific observations about oil reserves. Informed by Hubbert’s experiences, should researchers keep data and philosophy separate or are the two critical for society to benefit from science?
Our philosophies inevitably shape the research we pursue, and bias how we interpret results. So I think it’s impossible to try to divorce research from our philosophies – or, to put it more broadly, from our values.
Many researchers study what they do out of a sense of concern about environmental damage, or about humanity having enough energy to maintain civilization, or other aspects of the world. That was certainly the case for Hubbert.
We should welcome those value judgments as a driving force behind research, while also ensuring that the scientific system has checks and balances, so that studies don’t simply wind up generating the results at which researchers would like to arrive. We have to be able to distinguish rigorous studies from sloppy studies.
Science is a way of observing, yet people often treat those observers as if their findings are opinion, swayed by belief. How did Hubbert combat the more personal assaults on his research, and efforts to discredit his work?
One reason why I titled my book The Oracle of Oil was that people often took Hubbert’s forecasts like the pronouncements of a seer, whose methods are inscrutable. That is, they didn’t try to understand how he arrived at his forecasts, but instead took them on (if those forecasts meshed with their worldview), or rejected them (if those forecasts clashed with their worldview).
Some scientists seemed to have a gut reaction to Hubbert’s forecasts that U.S. oil production would reach a peak around 1970, and that a few decades later, global production of conventional oil would likely also hit a peak. They found these forecasts too pessimistic, and rejected them.
In a case I talk about in the book, Hubbert served on a National Academy of Sciences committee and was writing a report that included his forecasts for U.S. and world oil. Hubbert was then one of the top researchers at Shell Oil and in the oil industry as a whole, but an MIT researcher with no background in oil objected to Hubbert’s work and tried to block it from being published.
Faced with this kind of opposition, which was not based on rigorous argument, Hubbert continued to try to improve his arguments and gather more relevant data. His conviction was that, eventually, people would be able to have a more rational, fact-based discussion about energy – and more broadly about sustainability and growth of economies, populations and consumption. He found the reactions to his ideas frustrating. But until his death in 1989, at age 86, he kept at it, writing papers, working on new methods of analysis and giving talks.
What was Hubbert’s guidance for a sustainable future? Is it achievable?
In Hubbert’s view, to move toward sustainability, the first big step is to recognize how pervasive growth is in modern society and modern thinking. We consider economic growth to be normal, and when it stalls temporarily—when there is a recession—then governments put extraordinary efforts toward getting growth going again. Likewise, we consider population growth and ever-increasing consumption to be normal.
But if you take a long view—as Hubbert always tried to—this kind of growth isn’t normal at all. The forces driving this growth are “among the most abnormal and anomalous in the history of the world,” as Hubbert put it in a talk in 1949. The key questions, he argued, were: “How long can we keep it up? Where is it taking us?”
Hubbert wanted us to try to forecast when we would hit various kinds of limits, and to begin taking action to avoid hitting those limits, before running into the limits and causing a lot of human suffering or environmental damage.
So Hubbert advocated switching off of fossil fuels to other energy sources. From the 1970s onward, he supported development of solar energy as the major source for the long term, and argued for more research on what we now call “solar fuels” – that is, ways of using solar energy to synthesize liquids or gases that could be burned without causing climate change. He was a strong advocate of family planning and birth control; he and his wife chose not to have children, and Hubbert donated to Planned Parenthood, at a time when it was a very controversial organization – even more so than today.
He was optimistic that people would develop the technologies needed, as long as we could limit our population and our consumption. But working with human nature, and changing ingrained ways of living, is much harder. So Hubbert thought the truly daunting challenge was to shift modern culture.
To avoid hitting a peak for future energy, what alternatives hold the most promise?
In many scenarios for the future that would allow us to avoid hitting limits—such as of oil availability—and also avoid dangerous levels of climate change, a key component is greater energy efficiency. In fact, the United States hit peak energy consumption per person in the late 1970s. After that peak, Americans’ consumption per person plateaued for decades, and has fallen in recent years. Similarly, all high-income nations around the world hit peak energy consumption in the mid-2000s.
However, for the average person worldwide, energy consumption is much lower—less than half that of a resident of the average high-income nations as a whole, and about a quarter as much as the average American. So if rich countries are to remain rich, and at the same time poorer countries are to develop and become better off—and meanwhile, we also want to avoid dangerous climate change and other environmental damage—then we will need a lot more clean energy.
But we might not need a lot more energy, overall, than we consume today. We can take a look at scenarios laid out by the International Energy Agency for keeping climate change below dangerous levels. In that scenario, world energy consumption—not just per person, but for everyone—would increase only about 10% from today to the year 2040. That’s growth of less than half a percent per year—almost nothing compared with the kind of growth we’ve gotten used to. Even as energy use plateaued, the kind of energy we use would need to go through profound shifts, with coal largely being phased out, and the remaining coal-fired power plants using carbon capture and storage to lock away carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the air.
We’d need to shift toward cleaner sources, with much more nuclear, wind and solar power.
If this scenario and others like it are on the right track, we can certainly live with peak energy. We just have to use energy more wisely. In this case, hitting peak energy could be the result of conscious decisions, rather than something forced on us by circumstances.
This is exactly what Hubbert urged all along. He wanted us to recognize the various kinds of limits humanity faces, and to plan ahead to adapt. He’s often branded as a pessimist for highlighting such limits, but actually he was an optimist who believed humanity would eventually recognize these limits and choose to live within them.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.