This paper is a review of Mason Inman’s recent biography of M.K. Hubbert, The Oracle of Oil. The paper also contains significant additional material giving background to Hubbert’s views and data, and setting these into the modern context.
Inman’s book can be thoroughly recommended: it is well written, extraordinarily informative, and highlights a number problems which today are still of considerable importance and which society will need to face.
A primary focus of the book is Hubbert’s geological background and research, with a key area being the estimates he made over his life of the likely recoverable resources of US oil and gas, and hence their probable production profiles; and likewise for global oil supply. Well described in the book are the deep – and still resonant – controversies surrounding these estimates. One of Hubbert’s main concerns, as Inman clearly brings out, was that humankind should know the limits to the natural resources available, and as a consequence act to use these wisely.
While Hubert’s resource analyses were primarily of conventional oil and gas, he also examined in depth many aspects of the wider ‘global resources problem’. These included the energy available from other energy sources, including non-conventional oil and gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear fuels (conventional fission, breeder fission, and fusion), and solar energy; as well as the availability of minerals and water resources (modelling, for example, future scope for water extraction from the Ogallala aquifer). He also studied the deeper problems underpinning the use of resources, including population growth, society’s expectation of exponential economic growth, and of the best way to govern society given the resource constraints.
Finally, Inman’s book includes an excellent epilogue that brings up to date the controversies over Hubbert’s views, and covers the recent changes in US government policy towards oil supply and wider energy issues, including discussion of the dramatic change of view in many quarters on oil limits (and, implicitly, on other energy limits also) that has accompanied the rise of shale oil production in the US.
This book review is augmented by additional discussion of some of the issues raised in the book which are still relevant – probably more so now than then. These include being misled by proved reserves; how knowledge of a technical subject gets into government thinking; whether mankind should adopt the free market or technocratic control; and the status of the ‘Hubbert controversy’ today.
This additional information concludes with three annexes:
– Being Misled by Proved Reserves;
– Two Intellectual Systems: Matter-energy and the Monetary Culture – A summary by Hubbert;
– Extracts from King Hubbert: Science’s Don Quixote, published in the February 1983 issue of the magazine of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.
Bentley, R.W. (2016) Book Review: The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future The Oil Age 2 (2) 55-75.
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