FIRST THE DERRICKS, then the bars and brothels. After that, the wasteland.
In 1859, the first successful oil well in the United States was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Eight miles away and six years later, a lot more oil was found where I was standing in the almost uninhabited land around a stream called Pithole Creek. Within a few months of the discovery hundreds of derricks were up and pumping away. In every direction the landscape had been stripped of trees to build oil silos, oil barrels, oil roads—and a new oil city, population fifteen thousand. Conjured out of nothing, it was the world’s first petroleum boomtown.
The isolated city had no legal existence or official name. Up it went anyway, everything in a hot-brained hurry. Some people began calling it Pithole. Newspapers called it “Oil-Dorado.” Whatever the name, it was a frenzy of production, an orgy of consumption.
Entire buildings were thrown up in a few days, then caught fire and were rebuilt. People bought and sold drilling land in a fury, waving bricks of cash. The atmosphere was filled with smoke and ash and the baying sounds of human beings in chase of money. Everyone was sure they were at the beginning of something that would last forever and change the world.
Seven months after the first Pithole strike, a big well stopped flowing. Others followed—the oil was running out. Brothel owners, sensitive to customers’ moods, quickly vacated their establishments; other businesspeople soon followed. By the spring of 1866 scores of buildings stood empty. Pithole was barely a year old but already into its downward spiral. In 1870 only 281 people lived there. Eight years later somebody bought the entire town for $4.37. Today not one of Pithole’s original structures remains. I walked down paths that had once been streets past vacant land that had once been real estate. The age of oil seemed to have alighted there and left.
A brief, tawdry flowering, followed by collapse—surely Pithole’s inhabitants had not imagined this as their future. Poking through the city’s ruins, I found it impossible not to wonder whether our Industrial Age was not simply Pithole writ large: an evanescent surge of wealth, much of it squandered, doomed to end when the world’s supply of fossil fuels was consumed.
Our giddy modern lives have depended for decades on a steadily increasing supply of coal, oil, and natural gas. What would happen if they abruptly ran out? The answer comes easily to mind: industrial civilization, imploding in an awful smash. Pithole’s citizens, wannabe wildcatters all, had been sure they were creating a prosperous, long-lasting tomorrow. Centuries from now, will our descendants look back in scorn at our equally feckless view of the future?
FOSSIL FUELS are ancient light. Three hundred-plus million years ago, in the swampy Carboniferous epoch, strange forests covered the world. Many were ruled by giant, shaggy lepidodendrons: scaly, hundred-foot poles topped with grasslike leaves. Others were dominated by horsetails the size of trucks and ferns tall as an apartment building. Although these creatures resembled no trees on earth today, they were nonetheless the product of photosynthesis, which is to say that they were organic batteries, biochemical storehouses for energy from the sun. When plants die today, fungi decompose them, releasing most of their solar energy. In the Carboniferous, fungi had not yet evolved the ability to break down lignin, the tough compound that gives wood its strength and bulk. The climate changed, becoming too cool for most lepidodendrons, horsetails, and monster ferns; entire forests collapsed into muck. Buried in almost oxygen-free sludge, untouched by fungi, they decayed only slowly and partially, creating layers of peat. Over the eons, crushed and heated by the slow churning of the planet, the peat became coal. All the while, in a parallel process, the earth was crushing and heating ocean-floor layers of dead plankton, algae, and other marine organisms to form the sticky gumbo of oil, gas, and other compounds known collectively as petroleum. In these smashed jungles and seabeds, glossy and black, solar energy waited, frozen in time, ready to be tapped.
The first known use of fossil fuels—burning coal for heating and cooking—occurred in China, probably around 3400 bc. Coal didn’t catch on quickly, even in China. It was far from big cities, in places like Inner Mongolia, and had to be dug from the ground and transported. People found it easier to cut down nearby forests for fuel, and even burn grass and dung, than extract coal from faraway mines. Because Britain was among the first areas to be thoroughly deforested, Britons were perforce early adopters of coal. Records show that the black stuff has been powering iron foundries, limekilns, and brewery boilers since at least the days of Henry III, who ruled in the thirteenth century. The coal, mostly low quality and rich with impurities, released toxic smoke in a lethal fog. Indeed, Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, fled coal-crazy Nottingham in 1257 because she could not tolerate the fumes. Britain and other parts of northern Europe kept using fossil fuels; having little wood, they had little alternative. The choice paid off in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the invention of the steam engine, the blast furnace, and the cement kiln vastly increased the demand for energy. People looked hungrily for novel energy supplies, which they found—new coal beds to begin with, then natural gas and oil.
The impact of fossil fuels exhausts hyperbole. Take any variable of human well-being—longevity, nutrition, income, infant mortality, overall population—and draw a graph of its value over time. In almost every case it skitters along at a low level for thousands of years, then rises abruptly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar energy in coal, oil, and natural gas. In 1800 fewer than 1 billion humans walked the earth, most of whom were hungry and poor. Just two centuries later, our numbers have increased to 7 billion.
Before fossil fuels, even the wealthiest houses were cold when temperatures dropped. A visitor to the Palace of Versailles observed in February of 1695 that guests wore furs to dinner; at the king’s table, the royal water glasses were filmed with ice. A century later, Thomas Jefferson had a magnificent home (Monticello), the nation’s finest wine collection, and one of the world’s great private libraries, which would become the foundation for the Library of Congress. But Monticello was so frigid in winter (twelve degrees Fahrenheit indoors!) that Jefferson’s ink froze in his inkwell, preventing him from writing to complain about the cold.
In the decades after Jefferson’s death, these fundamental aspects of life were transformed, at least for the upper- and middle-class Westerners. For the first time in history, people in large numbers could heat their entire residence, bedrooms included; for the first time, they could, if they wished, light up the dark. Central plumbing suddenly became more practical, because houses were less likely to freeze, and pipes to burst. On a larger scale, fossil fuels lighted city streets, drove railroads and steamships, and allowed for the mass production of steel and cement, the physical underpinning of every industrial society. “Every basket [of coal] is power and civilization,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1860. “For coal is a portable climate.”
None of this was hidden from view. Educated and affluent nineteenth-century Westerners realized that they were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Their twenty-first-century descendants are richer than anything dreamed of by Solomon. To fight off cold, people used to chop down and cut up trees; today billions of people can flick a switch and feel hot air gush up from slotted holes in the floor. The average American car engine is, unthinkably, more than two hundred horsepower—as if every suburban Mom and Dad had two hundred ponies at their disposal, but without the need to feed the animals, take them to the veterinarian, or shovel their manure.
Those educated and affluent Westerners also understood that all of this wealth and well-being was tied to the lavish use of fossil fuels—which is why politicians and businesspeople have worried for more than a century about whether the petroleum would last. The world, these people knew, is finite; its petroleum supply surely must also be finite. The apprehension came out in the open as early as 1886, when Pennsylvania state geologist J. P. Lesley declared in a widely publicized speech that the state’s “amazing exhibition of oil and gas” was “a temporary and vanishing phenomenon.” “There is a limited amount [of oil],” he proclaimed. “Our children will merely, and with difficulty, drain the dregs.” One of the first and most enduring products of the age of fossil fuels was the fear that the age would rapidly end.
Today this idea is generally called “peak oil,” after the idea that global petroleum output will soon peak, then fall. Coursing through history in a series of panics, the conviction that civilization was hurtling toward an inescapable petroleum doom has, since Lesley, become embedded in Western culture. Time after time, decade after decade, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians of every stripe have predicted that the world will soon run out of petroleum. Time after time, decade after decade, new supplies have been found and old reservoirs extended. The scarcity proved to have been only of the easy oil whose location was already known. People forgot their fears until the next wave of alarm, the next prophesies of catastrophe.
None of this would matter, perhaps, if the peak-oil panics came without a cost. But that is not the case. Fear of peak oil has been a malign presence on the international stage for more than a century, driving imperialist forays, stoking hatred among nations, fueling war and rebellion. It has cost countless lives. Equally problematic, peak oil helped establish a set of wholly mistaken beliefs about natural systems—beliefs that have repeatedly impeded environmental progress. It laid out a narrative that has led ecological activists astray for years. Far too often, we have been told we are facing crises of scarcity, when the deepest of our problems are due to abundance.
IF ANDREW CARNEGIE didn’t think of himself as the smartest person in the room he certainly acted as if he did. Canny and ruthless, a cross-grain mix of avarice and generosity, Carnegie prided himself on his ability to see ahead farther than other people. In his later years he would become one of the richest people who ever lived (his net worth was equivalent in today’s terms to hundreds of billions of dollars). But he was just an ambitious twenty-six-year-old railroad executive when he became one of the first to ponder the consequences of peak oil.
In 1862 Carnegie toured the Pennsylvania oil patch and was taken aback. This frenzy, he in effect said, cannot possibly last. With a friend, Carnegie decided to set up a company that would profit from the coming collapse. As Carnegie recalled in his autobiography, his partner “proposed to make a lake of oil by excavating a pool sufficient to hold a hundred thousand barrels . . . and to hold it for the not far distant day when, as we then expected, the oil supply would cease.” When that happened, Carnegie’s partner argued, they would be sitting pretty.
The two men paid $40,000 to lease an oil field, dug a reservoir about the size of a football field, filled it with their oil, and waited for the apocalypse. Meanwhile, the reservoir leaked—a lot. Carnegie and his partner realized that if they waited for the end of oil it would be the end of their oil. They were forced to sell. Luckily for them, oil prices were rising sharply. The two men made almost a million dollars from their $40,000 investment. It was the beginning of Carnegie’s fortune.
Undeterred by Carnegie’s blunder, other oilmen continued predicting the end of the run. At the time Pennsylvania contained the world’s only big, proven oil field. Geologists at Standard Oil, the largest firm in the industry, reported to headquarters that the odds of finding another like it were a hundred to one. The looming end of easy oil became common wisdom at energy firms. Told in 1885 that oil might be found in Oklahoma, Standard’s John D. Archbold, one of the first U.S. petroleum refiners, scoffed, “Are you crazy?” (Similar warnings occurred about coal. Lord Kelvin, the great British physicist, proclaimed in 1881 that the “coal-stores of the world are becoming exhausted surely, and not slowly.”)
The fears were both prescient and misguided. Pennsylvania oil indeed hit a peak in 1890 and thereafter fell, though the wells never quite ran dry. Meanwhile new fields were emerging in Indiana and Ohio. In 1901, a raffish crew in east Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, struck pay dirt. Oil shot 150 feet in the air at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day, a flow bigger than any seen in Pennsylvania. Flailing in the surreal black rain, workers took nine days to control the spout, by which time a new Pithole—Beaumont, Texas—was already forming. Unlike its Pennsylvania predecessor, though, the Texas oil patch produced oil for many decades.
Each new discovery was bigger than the last, but each seemed only to enhance the perception of vulnerability. President Theodore Roosevelt convened a meeting at the White House in 1908 of all fifty governors to warn of the “imminent exhaustion” of fossil fuels. A month after the meeting Roosevelt created the National Conservation Commission, with Gifford Pinchot, the pioneering forester, as its head. Pinchot asked the U.S. Geological Survey to assay the total volume of U.S. crude oil reserves, the first such survey ever taken. Its conclusions, released in 1909, were emphatic: If the United States continued “the present rate of increase in production,” a “marked decline” would begin “within a very few years.” Output would fall to zero in about 1935—a warning that the Survey repeated, annual report after annual report, for almost twenty years.
The most consequential alarms, though, rang not in Washington DC, but in London. They were sounded by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Appointed in 1911, the ever-vigorous Churchill set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. In the previous three decades, Britain had converted its entire fleet from the unsteady power of wind to the predictable force provided by fossil fuels, coal in this case. Now, Churchill proclaimed, Britain had to transform its navy a second time. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. This greater energy density meant that oil, rather than coal, was the fossil fuel of choice.
Because Britain had little oil, Whitehall worried that converting would make the fleet dependent on foreigners. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” The United Kingdom soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia).
The initial oil concession with Iran, negotiated in 1901, had been on terms highly favorable to Britain. To protect these interests, Britain seized Iran, temporarily taking over its cabinet and military. An attempt in 1919 to make the arrangement permanent led to an uprising. Two years later, Whitehall helped coordinate a coup d’état that ultimately led to the installation of a new shah. He vowed to protect Iran from foreign interference while simultaneously promising those same foreigners not to interrupt the flow of oil.
Iran was not the only focus. During the First World War, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia made plans to carve up the Ottoman Empire, which had allied against them with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Except for Istanbul, the strategically located Ottoman capital, the most valuable spoils were the petroleum zones in what are now Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. These were parceled out in a series of covert meetings, but the United States refused to accept the deal—it would, for example, have given Istanbul to Moscow. Greece took advantage of the bickering to invade the Ottoman Empire. A breakaway faction of the Ottoman army fought off Greece, setting off a revolution. Unwilling to interfere, Britain, France, Italy, and Russia gave up their designs on the Ottoman heartland—modern Turkey—and focused on the oil regions, which the revolutionary army couldn’t defend. Only in 1928 did the parties hammer out a plan to divvy up the drilling rights, with Britain getting the biggest share.
From today’s perspective, the frenzied efforts to grab Middle East oil seem bizarrely disconnected from the facts on the ground—the world was awash in oil. At the time, two nations dominated petroleum production: the United States, responsible for about two-thirds of global oil, and the Soviet Union, which pumped an additional fifth. Both were finding and extracting petroleum at ever-rising rates. Between 1920 and 1929, U.S. crude-oil reserves nearly doubled, from 7.2 billion to 13.2 billion barrels—a bigger increase than ever before. Meanwhile, Soviet oil production, which had crashed during the Russian Revolution, came roaring back; its oil output almost quadrupled in the 1920s. And new oil sources were constantly coming online. Venezuela, for instance, went from pumping almost no oil in 1920 to producing 500,000 barrels a day in 1929.
Ignoring the petroleum glut, politicians throughout the West continued to invoke the phantasm of an impending petroleum drought. When I searched through 1920s newspaper archives, I discovered more than a thousand articles prophesying an inevitable “oil crisis,” “oil famine,” or “oil shortage.” Some of those articles mentioned that oil executives were baffled by the cries of doom. But the overall tone was dire. “The United States is face to face with a near shortage in petroleum supplies so serious it threatens the very economic fabric of the nation,” cried the Los Angeles Times in 1923. A year later, the Houston Post Dispatch forecast “oil famine within two years.” “Oil exhaustion in fifteen or twenty years,” said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1925. A special twelve-part wire-service investigation in 1928 flatly proclaimed, “There is no possible excuse for assuming an adequate future supply of oil.” And so on.
The drumbeat of negative predictions had its effect: the United States and the European power rushed to control every possible drop of oil in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In light of the last eighty years of history in these regions, it is difficult to view these moves as enduring political successes. Colonial resentments inflame oil states even as they wrest huge sums from the developed world; meanwhile, Western nations, blindly convinced of their own victimization, freely meddle in petroleum-state politics dispatching armies and spies. Coups and attempted coups in Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria; oil shocks in 1973 and 1979; failed programs for “energy independence”; wars in Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria—this cancerous relationship, a mix of wrath and dependence, has continued unchanged for nine decades. Driven by the permanent panic of peak oil, it is as fundamental to the structure of global relations as the law of gravitation is to the order of the seasons.
Although many other factors, religion notable among them, have had their hand in this state of affairs, it is hard not to wish that peak oil had never existed. But this fantasy may be unreasonable. After all, the earth is finite, so the amount of petroleum must also by finite. Isn’t it wholly rational to expect it to run out?
MARION KING HUBBERT, an idealist through and through, believed in the power of science to guide the human enterprise. A geophysicist at Columbia University in the early 1930s, he was one of the half-dozen cofounders of Technocracy. Technocracy Incorporated, as it was officially known, was a crusading effort to establish a government of all-knowing, unbiased engineers and researchers—men rather like Hubbert himself, as it happened. (Hubbert had impeccable academic credentials: undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago.) Technocracy adherents believed that the world was controlled by flows of energy and mineral resources, and society should be based on that understanding. Rather than allowing economies to dance to the senseless, febrile beat of supply and demand, Technocrats wanted to organize them on a quantity controlled by the eternal laws of physics: energy.
Politically neutral experts in red-and-gray Technocracy uniforms would assay every area’s yearly energy production, then divide it fairly among its citizenry, each person receiving an allocation of so many joules or kilowatt-hours per month. The leader of the system, the Great Engineer, would oversee a new nation, the North American Technate, created by merging North America, Central America, Greenland, and the northern bits of South America. No more would self-interested businesspeople and shortsighted politicians run rampant; the North American Technate would be smooth, efficient, and rational.
Surprising to Hubbert, Technocracy was mocked rather than embraced. Under the pressure of public disapproval, the group split into factions, and Hubbert learned to keep quiet about these beliefs. He soon became second-in-command at a newly expanded Shell Oil research facility in Houston. By the early 1950s, his gift for mathematical analysis had helped him become the company’s chief geological consultant. Although he had gained the respect of his colleagues, time had not slaked his desire to have an impact on society. In this he was wholly successful. Hubbert, one of the nation’s most important petroleum executives, would build some of the key intellectual framework for the environmental movement.
In 1949, visiting a friend at an energy conference, Hubbert was startled to hear a Stanford geologist claim that the world still had 1.5 trillion barrels of obtainable oil, enough to last another five centuries. “I nearly fell out of my seat,” Hubbert recalled later. “I was up here, relaxed, visiting with my friend—and good God Almighty! And nobody said boo.” Annoyed, Hubbert raised his hand at the end of the session. The geologist’s figure of 1.5 trillion, he said, was “just an utterly preposterous amount of oil, there’s no evidence whatever of that set figure.” The dispute grew heated, and did not end in agreement.
Lacking an overarching theory of petroleum formation, early geologists had assumed that oil and gas deposits must be located in zones similar to those where oil and gas had been found before. They looked, so to speak, for more Pithole Creeks. Because few such areas were known, researchers had the intuitive belief that petroleum deposits must be rare. In reality, new oil was found repeatedly—by wildcatters who, unaware of expert opinion, searched for it in all the wrong places. After many such discoveries, scientists had convinced themselves that petroleum was all over the place. The main obstacle to discovering oil, the famed petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt wrote in 1952, was the conviction it wasn’t there: “Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is the minds of men.”
To Hubbert, this kind of thinking was hooey—sheer mysticism. The earth has physical limits, after all. By definition, it can contain only a limited number of hydrocarbon molecules in a limited number of places! The global oil output between the first gusher in Pennsylvania and 1947 was 57.7 billion barrels, Hubbert wrote two years later. “Of this, one half has been produced and consumed since 1937”—that is, in the previous ten years. “One cannot refrain from asking, ‘Where is it taking us? How long can we keep it up?’”
Hubbert developed the first formal model of petroleum peak production, a subject no geologist had previously addressed. Its conclusion, in his view, was as obvious as it was unassailable: the current rate of growth was unsustainable. As inevitably as night follows day, the rise would be succeeded by a fall. Energy from coal, oil, and gas, Hubbert believed, had allowed our population to increase exponentially. When fossil fuels ran out, human numbers, too, would fall. Direly he presented graphs showing the simultaneous rise in energy use and population—and the unavoidable future peak in both. Not only was capitalist-style growth unsustainable, it was actively pushing humankind toward disaster. Our species, Hubbert wrote, will have to cut back to survive: “The future of our civilization largely depends [on whether humanity will be able] to evolve a culture more nearly in conformity with the limitations imposed upon us by the basic properties of matter and energy.”
These beliefs drew little attention until 1956, when Hubbert explained his thinking at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio. Between 1965 and 1970, he said, the crude-oil yield in the continental United States would peak. Production for the world as a whole would hit its maximum by the start of the twenty-first century. Just before Hubbert gave his talk, he later claimed, he was telephoned by an appalled Shell public-relations executive. “Couldn’t you tone it down a bit?” he recalled the man asking. “Couldn’t you take the sensational parts out?”
Hubbert, rarely in doubt about his own abilities, refused to back down, even after he left Shell and in 1964 went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey. As the University of Iowa historian Tyler Priest has written, Hubbert didn’t have it easy at USGS. His boss, Vincent E. McKelvey, became his most rabid critic. McKelvey was a long-serving USGS geologist who became its director in 1971. Like Hubbert, he saw himself as a grand thinker with wisdom to impart about society at large. But unlike Hubbert, his vision was sunny and optimistic, even utopian. Human ingenuity and technical prowess, he believed, were the sturdy vehicles that would carry us into a future of unbounded affluence.
Unsurprisingly, the two men clashed. McKelvey’s USGS sent out a flood of cheery projections of the country’s oil reserves, as did the oil industry. All the while, Hubbert broadcast jeremiads about imminent exhaustion, none of them published by the Geological Survey. The dispute soon grew personal. Hubbert accused McKelvey of stealing his papers; McKelvey accused Hubbert of withholding information; the two men wrote dueling reports for different branches of the government. Three days after McKelvey became the USGS director, he snatched away Hubbert’s secretary, a low blow in the precomputer era. According to Priest, Hubbert struck back by blackballing McKelvey’s nominations to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In a setback to McKelvey, Hubbert’s prediction proved to be correct: U.S. crude-oil production peaked in 1970. As output slowly fell, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall mocked McKelvey’s previous projections as “an enormous energy balloon of inflated promises and boundless optimism [that] had long since lost touch with any mainland reality.” In 1977 incoming President Jimmy Carter forced McKelvey to resign—the first such ouster, Priest reported, “in the Survey’s ninety-eight-year history.”
McKelvey’s fate may have been sealed by the Arab oil shock, which resonated with Hubbert’s message of scarcity. Half a dozen Arab oil nations had launched an oil embargo in 1967 as a response to the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It had little effect, because at the time the U.S. still produced much of its own oil. Six years later, when U.S. output was in decline, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought the Yom Kippur War. Many of the same nations decided to punish the United States for resupplying Israel. Arab petroleum producers ratcheted down their output for four months; at the embargo’s brief height, they cut production by about a quarter. U.S. oil prices quadrupled. Massive public alarm ensued. Passions boiled over as people waited for hours in gas lines; line-jumpers got into fistfights.
Today most historians view the oil shock as a consequence of mistaken government policies. Arab petrostates could not target individual nations, because national oil companies sell oil and gas to what is, in effect, a single worldwide pool controlled by middlemen. Any production cutback thus could only raise prices equally across the planet, rather than striking at a single nation. Or, rather, the cutback couldn’t have hit a single nation if President Richard Nixon had not imposed price caps on U.S. oil and gas two years before as an inflation-fighting measure. When the embargo drove up petroleum prices, middlemen could make more money by selling their oil to countries other than the United States. They did just that, transforming a minor global shortfall into a full-fledged U.S. oil drought.
This is not how events were understood at the time. One year previously, a MIT-based research team had created an international furor with The Limits to Growth, which used computer models to predict that unless radical measures were taken the world would soon run out of resources, precipitating civilizational collapse. Hubbert’s name does not appear in Limits. Nonetheless, his fingerprints are all over it. It was as if the MIT team had plugged his views into a computer model and applied them beyond oil to resources like coal, iron, natural gas, and aluminum. Graph after graph depicted a Hubbertian race to a peak of production, followed by a ruinous decline. Like Hubbert, the Limits writers saw a direct connection between economic growth and calamity. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin has argued, the oil shock seemingly confirmed the thesis of The Limits to Growth. The fistfights at the gas pump were seen as a herald of the coming global crisis caused by overconsumption. Hubbert’s vision of inevitable limits had become an organizing principle of environmental thought.
Propelled by the oil shock, fears of scarcity fanned across the nation like a bad smell. Rumors of shortages in any number of goods—gasoline, electricity, salmon, cheese, onions, raisins—caused brief, unwarranted panics, some of them in commodities one would never imagine could be subject to dearth. The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 1973 occurred after talk-show host Johnny Carson joked about a shortage, causing frightened consumers to buy out stores. Carson’s jest ricocheted to Japan, which imported almost all of its paper from the United States; toilet-paper shelves emptied from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The next elected president, Jimmy Carter, was a Hubbertian—unsurprising, given the tenor of the times. Soon after his inauguration, he warned in a nationwide address that the planet’s proven petroleum reserves could be consumed “by the end of the next decade.”
Perversely, the most enduring consequence of the 1970s belief that energy supplies were running out was not to use less—but to look for more. In this quest, Jimmy Carter, arguably the most environmentally concerned president in U.S. history, endorsed policies that today seem like environmental folly. Notably, his administration sought to offset the oncoming decline of oil and gas by boosting the use of coal, a much dirtier fuel. Coal-fired power plants, which Carter championed, are the single biggest source of greenhouse gases. Just as peak oil had provided justification for foreign-policy adventures in the 1920s and 1930s, it proved a friend to Big Coal in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, petroleum firms found so much crude that by the end of the 1990s real prices had fallen to as little as a fifth of what they were during Carter’s day.
Central to the misunderstanding was the concept of a “reserve.” Both Hubbertians and McKelveyans agreed that an oil reserve is a physical entity: a finite pool of hydrocarbon molecules. To Hubbertians, the implication is obvious: pump out too much, and you will eventually empty it. How long you can pump depends primarily on the size of the pool. To McKelveyans, what matters most is not the size of the pool, but the capabilities of the pump.
The reason for this apparently counterintuitive belief is that a petroleum reserve is not, in fact, an underground lake like the one by which Bilbo finds the ring in The Hobbit, but rather an imprecisely defined layer of permeable, spongelike rock that has petroleum in its pores. And this petroleum is not a homogeneous substance but a chaotic salad of hydrocarbons of every imaginable density, from purely gaseous (methane, or natural gas) to syrupy liquid (crude oil) to almost solid (the petroleum precursors sometimes called tar sands, for example). What you can extract depends on how deep your drilling operation can probe, the composition of the regions it can reach, which of the various compounds in that area it can handle, and whether the current price of petroleum justifies the effort you are making. If your technical people develop better, more sophisticated equipment that lets you pump out more petroleum at a reasonable cost, the effective size of the reservoir increases. Not the actual size—its physical dimensions—but the effective size—the amount of oil and gas that you can remove in the foreseeable future. The actual dimensions of the pool are much less important.
This leads to a corollary: Hubbert and Limits were wrong. Natural resources cannot be used up. If oil from one reservoir gets too costly or difficult to extract, people will either find cheap new ways to extract it or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum for another generation to mine later. “It is commonly asked, when will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?” wrote the late MIT economist Morris Adelman, a prominent exponent of this view. “The best one-word answer: never.”
On its face, this seems ridiculous, even stupid. But centuries of experience have shown it to be true. As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite.
LAST MAY the fourth Mad Max movie came out to ecstatic reviews. Like the others in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Humanity has used up almost all the world’s oil and water, and the survivors have been reduced to fighting over what’s left. Aesthetically, the movie belongs to the School of Blowing Things Up in an Interesting Manner: automobiles crash; explosions destroy rock formations; giant sandstorms smash vehicles; a bald guy in a red bodysuit plays a guitar with a built-in flamethrower. For two hours people chase each other with lethal intent through a desert Aussie Pithole. I had a fine time watching it, but halfway through it occurred to me that the story only made sense if I assumed that everybody in Australia had taken a stupidity pill.
Australia is not an obvious venue for a movie about resource exhaustion. Its shale-oil reserve has been said to contain enough petroleum to rival Saudi Arabia. Even if one accepts for the sake of the movie that all of this petroleum was somehow sucked dry, Australia would still have the earth’s fourth-biggest coal reserves, enough to use for many decades. Engineers have known since 1913 how to convert coal to liquid fuel, a technique that Australia presumably could adopt. If the rest of the world were actually running short of petroleum, Aussies should be selling “guzzoline,” as it is called in Fury Road, all over Southeast Asia. (Similarly, the U.S. and Greenland, floating atop oceans of frackable natural gas, would be petro-superpowers.) Instead, the Australians in Mad Max have apparently forgotten coal-to-gas technology—a wave of dopiness that may explain why, when fuel is scarce enough to kill for, a red-suited nitwit is allowed to waste gas with his flame-throwing guitar.
Mad Max: Fury Road was released at a time when global oil prices had fallen to record lows. Yet that made no difference to its appeal: its setting perfectly embodied the narrative of oncoming scarcity.
The newest wave of these fears is traceable largely to the French petroleum engineer Jean Laherrère and the British geologist Colin Campbell, who argued in a widely read Scientific American article in 1998 that the global oil party was almost over. “Before 2010,” they said, global petroleum output would decline, inevitably and permanently. “Spending more money on oil exploration will not change this situation,” Laherrère and Campbell predicted. “There is only so much crude oil in the world, and the industry has found about 90 percent of it.” Humankind was not running out of oil per se, they stressed. What was vanishing was “the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend.”
Laherrère and Campbell didn’t use the term “peak oil,” which would not be introduced to the public for another four years. Yet peak oil was what they were talking about. They used a sophisticated version of Hubbert’s methodology to make what was at base the same prediction: oil would begin running out at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the next few years, a series of unrelated disasters jacked up oil prices: 9/11, war in Iraq, political turmoil in Venezuela (a big oil producer), Hurricane Katrina (which shut down most of the wells and refineries in the Gulf of Mexico), the Great Recession. None were connected to actual shortfalls at the wellhead, but all seemed to resonate with the narrative of peak oil. As the price of oil reached an all-time high—$147.27 in 2008—the Laherrère-Campbell theory’s stock went up with it. The cry of Cassandra grew ever louder.
“The supply of oil is limited,” President George W. Bush told the nation. Saudi Arabian petroleum is in “irreversible decline,” roared the late peak-oil pundit Matt Simmons in 2005. Oil baron/corporate raider T. Boone Pickens agreed; the world is “halfway through the hydrocarbon era,” he said at about the same time. Meanwhile, best-selling peak enthusiast James Howard Kunstler informed Americans that the United States “faces an imminent crisis with natural gas.” Warnings flooded from the presses: Hubbert’s Peak (2001). Powerdown (2004). Twilight in the Desert (2005). The Long Emergency (2006). Peak Oil Prep (2006). The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (2006). Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World (2009).
“The price of oil was an index to the Western world’s anxiety,” the novelist Don DeLillo had suggested. “It told us how bad we felt at a given time.” If so, people were feeling rather bad; petroleum fear had taken hold as never before. The University of Maryland’s Program of International Policy Attitudes surveyed fifteen thousand people in sixteen countries: 78 percent believed that we were running out of oil. Another poll: 83 percent of Britons thought that oil and gas could become unaffordable. Another: three-quarters of Americans feared that a petroleum drought was coming. “I don’t see why people are so worried about global warming destroying the planet,” Simmons said in 2008. “Peak oil will take care of that.”
NO BARS, no brothels, just derricks. Today, Western Pennsylvania, the world’s first big oil patch, is again dotted by oil rigs. When I visited Pithole, a half-dozen operations were pumping within a few miles of the ghost town. The region is part of the Marcellus Shale, a center of hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” as it is called, has brought new gushers of oil and gas to North America. In 2014, more than four decades after the time Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would begin to fall, the United States became the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels.
The man most responsible for this resurgence—the anti-Hubbert—was George Mitchell, an independent oil man from Texas, who demonstrated once again that the technology of the pump matters more than the size of the proverbial pool. The son of a Greek immigrant who ran a shoeshine shop in Galveston, Mitchell was born in 1919, worked his way through college, and joined the Army Corps of Engineers in the Second World War. He had an appetite for risk; when he launched his own small company, he would bet that he could find petroleum in places that others scorned. Often enough, he was correct. At some point in his geological education he learned that large formations of shale existed throughout the world. Between the countless thin layers in these zones were thin, diffuse bands of oil and gas. Conventional drilling, intended for ordinary, spongelike reservoirs, could not tap them. Mitchell believed that they could be extracted by combining two well-known techniques: fracturing rock (shooting high-pressure liquids into stone, which cracks the rock and creates pathways for trapped oil and gas) and horizontal drilling (cutting sideways to increase each well’s horizontal reach). Helped by government subsidies and initiatives, scoffed at by industry experts, this supremely stubborn man spent two decades trying to make his idea work. Only in 1997, in his late 70s, did he succeed. By the time of Mitchell’s death in 2013, the United States was producing more natural gas than ever before—an economic boon, an environmental problem.
In a sense, peak-oil advocates were onto something. Should fossil fuels run out, then many—perhaps most—environmental problems would tend to self-correct. Almost inevitably, the end of oil, coal, and natural gas would deal a body blow to industrial society. If, as Hubbert and many others have suggested, the ultimate cause of our environmental dilemmas is uncontrolled economic growth, then the onset of peak oil would be an ecological godsend. Industrial fertilizers, a product of fossil fuels, would no longer create dead zones in lakes and oceans. Suburbs would stop expanding into wetlands. Factories would pollute fewer rivers in the race to sell gadgets for export. People wouldn’t be able to buy endangered fish if fuel costs explode. Climate change would be much less of a peril in a no-growth economy. So would air pollution. The skies are always blue in a dystopia.
But our situation is different and perhaps more difficult. The dilemma stems from relative abundance, not scarcity. As technology expands our reach, resources remain easy to take out of the earth. Even if today’s reserves of oil and gas become costly to extract, others lie waiting in the wings: extra-heavy oil in Venezuela, methane hydrates along the continental shelves. When a good is obtained cheaply and readily, humans take for granted that it is abundant; as gasoline prices drop, people burn it heedlessly. Sales of fuel-thrifty Priuses slip; sales of oil-hungry SUVs rise, along with their associated emissions. Like giddy drunks locked in a warehouse full of booze, humanity takes advantage of ease and profusion to throw a party. The next day is the hangover, with the floor covered in spilled booze and shattered glass. Nobody has ever solved a drinking problem by attributing the hangovers to a shortage of liquor.
Today offers an opportunity to at last cast away the narrative of scarcity. Peak oil resulted in far too many imperial adventures and only produced a scramble for more. The most important step to addressing any problem is to diagnose it correctly. People may differ on their suggested remedies, but none will be correct if they don’t understand the problem. The first lesson of Pithole is to stop learning the lesson of Pithole.