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Ignoring the Shale Revolution


On March 8, 1956, Shell Oil research geologist Marion King Hubbert delivered a keynote speech at an American Petroleum Institute meeting in San Antonio, Texas, and predicted that U.S. oil production would peak within 10 to 15 years. The reaction was dismissive. Hubbert was challenging an entrenched belief in American petroleum abundance. Fifteen years later, however, U.S. oil output did begin to decline, and Americans’ reliance on foreign oil soared.

The confirmation of his 1956 prediction transformed Hubbert from iconoclast to visionary. In the mid-2000s, as global oil production appeared to have peaked, he became the idol of environmentalists who dreamed of an end to the oil era.

A man who likened himself to Galileo, King Hubbert (1903-89) would have approved of the portrait painted in “The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future.” One of the most gifted geoscientists of his age but also one of the most contentious, Hubbert pursued scientific truth and his own legend with equal vigor. Instead of taking the full measure of the man and his impact, which would have required examining Hubbert’s compulsions and contradictions as an environmental thinker, Mason Inman, an environmental journalist, polishes the legend.

The more revealing half of this biography is about Hubbert’s life before 1956. A native of the austere Methodist community of San Saba, Texas, he displayed his iconoclasm early, rejecting religious fundamentalism for empirical science. A precocious and cocky student, he earned degrees in geology and physics from the University of Chicago and in 1930 began teaching at Columbia University.

Photo: wsj

The Oracle of Oil

By Mason Inman
Norton, 413 pages, $29.95

Amid the intellectual ferment in New York City during the Great Depression, Hubbert fell under the spell of a magnetic charlatan named Howard Scott, who envisioned a revolutionary future in which the “price system” would be replaced with “energy certificates” and scientists and engineers would manage government and industry across a North American “Technate.”

Scott, whose gray-uniformed disciples saluted him as the “Great Engineer,” enlisted Hubbert as the second-in-command of “Technocracy Inc.” The geologist’s 1934 Technocracy Study Course was circulated to local chapters across the country and articulated his growing conviction that there were immutable physical limits to economic growth and energy consumption.

Hubbert drifted away from Technocracy during World War II, when he was a researcher with the Board of Economic Warfare. In 1943 he landed a position as head of Shell Oil’s geophysical lab in Houston, where he was given freedom to pursue wide-ranging research. By the early 1950s, he had solved an age-old puzzle concerning the plastic flow of rocks in the Earth’s crust, overturned accepted notions about the movement of underground fluids, explained the physics of hydraulic well fracturing and revolutionized thinking about petroleum entrapment.

His brilliant scientific attainments never eased his deep insecurities. It was not enough for him to be right. Someone had to be humiliated in the process. Mr. Inman appears uninterested in pondering the mixture of arrogance and resentment that shaped Hubbert’s personal interactions. There is one passage about the ritual abuse suffered by his technical assistant at Shell, Martha Lou Broussard, exemplified by his objections to her dress color and food preferences, but there are few other examples of the man’s well-known quarrelsomeness.

Instead, he is allowed to narrate his own story. Much of “The Oracle of Oil” reads like annotated transcripts from the 36 hours of interviews conducted by historian Ronald Doel with Hubbert just before his death in 1989. Mr. Inman never challenges self-serving tales or calls out errors. He quotes Hubbert denouncing optimistic projections of future oil discoveries in 1959: “I think we can rule out any radical improvement in geophysical techniques.” The lack of comment on this statement suggests that Mr. Inman is unaware of the digital breakthroughs in seismic surveying that shortly followed.

The second half of “The Oracle of Oil” recounts Hubbert’s peak-oil prediction and his campaign to discredit the inflated numbers peddled by both oilmen and the scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey. Retiring from Shell in 1964, Hubbert joined the USGS and feuded with its chief geologist, and eventual director, Vincent McKelvey, who clung to a dubious estimate of 590 billion barrels of ultimate U.S. crude-oil reserves. Hubbert placed the upper limit just above 200 billion barrels. When U.S. oil production fell during the 1970s energy crisis, Hubbert emerged the proud prophet, while McKelvey lost his credibility and eventually his job when Jimmy Carter became president.

Although Hubbert deserves credit for forcing new rigor upon official petroleum estimates, he was no oracle. His peak-oil prediction was accurate in the near term, but over the longer span it was wildly wrong. Mr. Inman never discusses the statistical and conceptual problems with Hubbert’s “curve-fitting” methods, such as their reliance on aggregate data, which work well only under special conditions, or failure to predict future discoveries and reserve growth. He insists that Hubbert remains correct about “conventional” oil (that which is drilled through traditional wells) and minimizes the importance of “unconventional” plays that have extended U.S. oil and gas reserves far beyond what Hubbert thought possible.

Had this book been published in 2007, at the height of oil prices and peak mania, it might have resonated. Unfortunately for Mr. Inman, McKelvey’s optimism no longer looks so outlandish. The technologies of the shale revolution have blurred the distinction between conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons and reversed the decline in U.S. oil and gas production that Hubbert insisted was terminal. Current U.S. oil production, at nearly nine million barrels per day, is nine times what Hubbert believed it would be in the 21st century.

Mr. Inman’s greater failure, however, is his reluctance to wrestle with the many paradoxes of King Hubbert. The geologist was an innovator who discounted the value of innovative technology. He was a dogmatic crusader for science over dogma. He was a relentless quantifier who dismissed economics as “hieroglyphics.” In the end, he expressed steadfast certainty about what can only ever be an uncertain future.


25 Comments on "Ignoring the Shale Revolution"

  1. HARM on Mon, 25th Apr 2016 9:02 pm 

    Yes, M. King Hubbert was wrong to dismiss and/or lowball estimates about economically recoverable shale/tar-sands/frack oil & liquids. Unfortunately, most people are drawing the wrong conclusions and deciding that the whole concept of peak oil (or scarcity itself) is bunk and perhaps trees can grow to the sky.

  2. GregT on Mon, 25th Apr 2016 10:48 pm 

    Hubert did not lowball or dismiss estimates about economically recoverable shale/tar-sands/frack oil & liquids. He used the best estimates available to the industry at the time, and if anything, those estimates were in all likelihood too high.

  3. onlooker on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 2:07 am 

    Regardless whether Hubbert dismissed or downplayed Tar and Shale, these sources are not resilient sources economically as they are not economical for the most part especially considering our overall energy needs and the current state of the economy.

  4. Apneaman on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 2:47 am 

    Downplayed tarsands? The first commercial extraction in Alberta wasn’t until 1967, so that probably made it harder to factor it into his 1956 study I would think. A couple of years later there was a scheme to nuke the tar sands to heat them up and get the oil flowing and then pump it out with conventional rigs. Gee maybe he thought, I think I need to see some actual progress/proof before I go plugging in a bunch of numbers based on……what? Hope and nukes? Hey I know, how about a new climate model based on biblical passages? And it rained for forty days and forty nights……on Houston………because of gay people.

  5. theedrich on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 3:00 am 

    What is the point of Inman’s review?  To broadcast the idea that Hubbert did not have some kind of perfect vision of the future or could not anticipate temporarily profitable advances in fracking when prices were sky-high?  Or that he was a human being rather than a god?  Hubbert did those of us who are awake an immense service by pointing out what was unclear in his day:  that in America conventional oil’s days were numbered.  Not long after the American peak in 1970, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth was published.  Yes, both Hubbert and the CoR were ahead of their time.  But almost every honest survey of the world’s resources, starting with oil, point to the fact that today we are in the phase of diminishing returns and have already exceeded the biosphere’s carrying capacity.  Hubbert was a man with the will to go against the group-think so prevalent amount the grant-seeking crowd of our day.  And for that he deserves a prominent place in history, not the detraction found in Inman’s piece.

  6. theedrich on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 3:03 am 

    Correction:  “among,” not “amount.”

  7. Joe on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 5:32 am 

    They can’t stimulate mega demand, property market prices are peaking, cheap oil and negative interest rates can’t get things moving.
    The west is getting old and slowing and being flooded with immigrants who have no skills so productivity is falling, being replaced by computerisation and technology.

  8. rockman on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 6:16 am 

    And one more time: as Hubbert clearly states in his report he was not predicting the peak of US oil production but the peak production rate of the known and fairly well developed oil trends at the time. He also specifically said that that his estimate did not include future plays such as the unconventional reservoirs or the offshore trends. Another often misstated point: the production curve would not be symmetrical nor would it mark the point of 50% of all recoverable reserves being reached.

    It’s OK: folks can constantly misrepresent Hubbert’s work because the Rockman will consistently correct their misinformation. BTW Hubbert’s forecast of the trends he built his model on has been proven to be very accurate even to this day: most of those trends represent the stripper producers that still make up a significant portion of total US oil production. In fact one of those fields is the first major oil field discovered in the US more than 100 years ago and is still producing today. The Rockman is currently working on a proposal to use a certain EOR technique to recover some of the 50 million bbls of residual oil still in that reservoir. And by an odd coincidence this EOR method was proven to be effective in the trend by another group of Shell Oil geologists.

  9. Boat on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 8:39 am 


    It was just 2 years ago Texas was going down because of drought.

  10. Kenz300 on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 8:48 am 

    Busted! Fracking Chemical Found in Wyoming Water Supply | CleanTechnica

  11. Apneaman on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 9:55 am 

    Boat, yabut y’all was saved by Rick Perry’s prayer….looks like he went too far. Now Texas will never see drought again because it’s been shit kicked by deluges? Is that what you are trying to say Boat? I already told you the drought deluge cycle is your future. Only the deluges are going to get bigger and more frequent. Remember the rule little boaty? For every 1 C rise in temps the atmosphere hold 7% more moisture. It’s part of our new and improved fossil fuelled hydrological cycle. Historically speaking it’s the droughts that are the big culprit in famine, but these deluges are great for smashing the shit out of our infrastructure if you haven’t already noticed. You keep counting barrels little boaty it seems to work better than prozac for you. Barrel counts and government GDP numbers are the only two factors that matter in the whole world.

  12. Apneaman on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 9:58 am 

    I’m not Ignoring the Shale Revolution, I’m looking right at it……………………… in the rear view mirror.

  13. GregT on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:01 am 

    “It was just 2 years ago Texas was going down because of drought.”

    “Texas can’t win. In recent years, in a punishing cycle of precipitation extremes, the Lonestar State has alternated between drought and deluge.”

    “Texas’ extreme precipitation cycle began in late 2010, when Texas entered into one of its worst droughts in recorded history. Then, this May, the drought ended abruptly when the average rainfall across the state of Texas was almost nine inches, including a stunning 17 inches in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.”

    “But after the late spring rains, the tap shut off. While the state was mostly drought-free as of late July, a lack of meaningful rain since has allowed drought to consume half the state, mostly in the eastern half. Forty percent of the state has earned a “severe drought” classification.”

    Welcome to the new normal of climatic instability. Expect more of the same, and expect it to continue to become more extreme.

  14. PracticalMaina on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:13 am 

    Climate instability means food growing out behind your house is easier to keep safe from extreme weather than some corn in the middle of a 1,000,000 acre mono-crop in the midwest.
    15-20% of global food production in city’s, it seems counter intuitive and over stated to me, but either way still has huge implications. This is not even mentioning the potential of suburbia and rural small “war garden” like efforts.

  15. GregT on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:23 am 

    15-20% of global food production won’t feed 100% of the population. The implications of large crop failures will be huge, for those amongst the 80-85% that haven’t already learned how to grow food long before any such an event occurs. Gardening can be fun, until your life depends upon it, then it becomes a matter of survival.

  16. PracticalMaina on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:38 am 

    True but in a collapse situations it is always assumed that their will be total devastation of urban populations, 80% is a lot better than 100% for the 20%, or for whoever is within walking distance of the outskirts of the city. The fact that one in five in the citys would be able to garden for themselves is a relatively high number seeing how they were not raised into that culture, it has been more out of necessity because of lack of work. The 07 crash added 40% more farmers in my area, no jobs, mine as well feed you and yours and try to come up with a little bit of marketable produce.

  17. PracticalMaina on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:39 am 

    Although I am sure a large portion of that 20% were 3rd world sustenance farmers who either moved to the city or the city moved to them.

  18. GregT on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:47 am 

    Yah Practical, I’m sure that those numbers are not indicative of first world countries. Why work to grow food, when ‘Food Depot’ is easily within driving distance in the SUV?

  19. PracticalMaina on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 10:49 am 

    But in that article you can see some impressive numbers for small acreage producing large volumes of vegetables. This is going to be especially relevant in poor urban areas where homes are collapsing in on themselves and opening up green spaces.

  20. GregT on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 11:01 am 

    I would argue that it will be even more relevant in rich urban areas, where the people are completely reliant on JIT delivery systems, with little to no experience or knowledge in DIY food production.

    As the old adage goes, the meek shall inherent the Earth. Stealing other people’s stuff isn’t a long term solution.

  21. PracticalMaina on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 11:04 am 

    It has been for the 1% 🙂

  22. GregT on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 11:12 am 

    Yes it has, and it probably still will be, but that 1% is more likely the .00001%. The same as it ever was.

  23. Harquebus on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 9:11 pm 

    Wall Street Journal. Nuff said.

  24. makati1 on Tue, 26th Apr 2016 9:13 pm 

    Practical, those “small acres” are managed by very experienced farmers that invested years in building the soil and learning the ins and outs of growing anything but weeds. They are not owned by someone who went to Walmart and bought a few packs of GMO seeds and a few farm tools last Spring and dug up his back yard.

  25. Anonymous on Mon, 23rd Oct 2017 3:38 am 

    The US has already produced 218 billion barrels of oil as of end of 2016, so Hubbert was certainly low. Here is the proof. Go to the linked EIA page:

    (download the data, then multiply the Mbpd/day by 365 days for each year and divide by 10^6 to get Bbbls/year and sum the column)

    Current TRR is ~264 billion barrels per Rystad study below. (not SEC proved reserves which is always very conservative and counts only oil wells expected to be drilled in 5 years or already producing wells.) Obama administration had a similar number (200 Bbls) as of 2012.

    264 + 218 =472

    A lot higher than Hubbert’s figure. And closer to McKelvey’s figure.

    And don’t get me started on natural gas. He really blew it on that one.

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