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(New Scientist) THIS is a curious time to publish a biography of M. King Hubbert. The story of how this brilliant but irascible Shell geologist accurately forecast in 1956 that US oil production would peak and go into terminal decline by 1970 is by now well worn. Worse, after the supply crunch of 2008 that sent the price soaring to $147 per barrel and was widely mistaken for the global peak, the world is now swimming in oil once more, and the price languishes at around $50.
In The Oracle of Oil , Mason Inman seeks to rehabilitate Hubbert, yet he struggles to make a convincing case. The book is nonetheless well written, deeply researched and rich in anecdote – Hubbert’s character and his intellectual achievements sing out.
Born to poor Methodists in hardscrabble Texas hill country, Hubbert sold his cow to go to college, was driven to science by his atheism, and later made donations to Martin Luther King. He achieved many breakthroughs with little more than a fierce intellect and a blackboard.
In 1953, he was the first to figure out how fracking worked, showing that the fractures caused by injecting fluid into rock would spread vertically not horizontally as industry experts then believed. Initially, they ignored him, convinced only after experiments involving a goldfish bowl, a soda bottle and a turkey baster. Forecast battle
You couldn’t accuse this account of being pacy, though. It’s a good 100 pages before we come to Hubbert’s defining achievement: a revolutionary way of forecasting that introduced us to the idea that the rate of oil production would peak and start to fall long before reserves were exhausted, often as early as halfway through. On a graph this produced a roughly symmetrical bell curve with a central peak – hence the name.
Hubbert’s forecast pitched him into a running battle with many in the oil industry until he was eventually proved excruciatingly right during the oil crisis of 1973, and achieved “oracle” status while Jimmy Carter was president.