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The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist's Quest for a Sustainable Future

ilugIn The Oracle of Oil, Mason Inman has highlighted the life, times and ideas of Marion King Hubbert (1903 - 89), regarded by many within geophysics, a genius. Inman uses the term 'oracle' as someone who gives sound advice and forecasts, and 'maverick' as an independent-minded person who refuses to toe the 'party line'. Others might say 'awkward squad'.

Hubbert came from the poorest Texas backwoods. His degree from the University of Chicago covered geology, physics and mathematics, but when he graduated had published three classic papers on geoscience. He had also worked many unpleasant hours just to pay his tuition fees. He developed a state-of-the-art university course on subterranean geophysics before joining Shell Oil in Houston in 1943 as 'technical coordinator'. On promotion, he helped grow their Bellaire Research Laboratories. He retired in 1964, and moved to the US Geological Survey, retiring again in 1976.

Throughout the chapters we get snippets of his scientific genius. He developed and published mathematically rigorous theories of fluid flow in porous media defining fluid potential, hydrodynamic trapping of oil in reservoirs, hydraulic fracturing, plasticity of rocks, overthrust faults, and much more. He gave many external lectures and had positive ideas on solar energy, climate change and nuclear energy, which became blunted because of the then cavalier disposal of waste.

In 1956 he gained notoriety for his in-depth analysis of oil reserves. He predicted that overall US petroleum production would soon peak and decline thereafter, illustrated in a bell-shaped curve - 'Peak Oil theory'. Many dismissed it, believing that the apparent plenty would last. However before Hubbert's death, his pronouncements were coming true and the US was importing much oil. An Epilogue updates us to 2012, where shale gas and oil have come to the rescue: but look what has happened since!

Inman walks us through King Hubbert's life giving us fascinating insights which illustrate why he gained reputation, clashes, many groundbreaking papers, accolades and honours. In particular we learn of his conflicts with academics, energy policy makers, oil companies, government agents and politicians.

I found The Oracle of Oil a page-turner. Hubbert's persistence for intellectual honesty and rigour and the challenges with the naysayers come across splendidly. The book and bibliography could be a valuable source for scientific historians and energy policymakers to get a flavour of the antipathetic atmosphere often surrounding him, particularly peak oil, and for anybody who wants an engaging read: no equations… just the peak curve.

Reviewed by Richard Dawe 

THE ORACLE OF OIL: A MAVERICK GEOLOGIST'S QUEST FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE by MASON INMAN, 2016. Published by: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 432pp., hbk, ISBN: 9780393239683. List price: £20, W: