(via WSJ) 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.
Amid the intellectual ferment in New York City during the Great Depression, Hubbert fell under the spell of a magnetic charlatan namedHoward 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.”