The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight Over Fracking, and the Future of Energy
By Gary Sernovitz
280 pp. St. Martin’s, $27.99.

We are in the midst of an energy revolution, although, as Sernovitz observes, not the one that utopians expected — with solar and wind energy too cheap and plentiful to meter, fuel cells humming in every basement, cars immaculately zipping along on hydrogen. For the time being, we have a fossil fuel glut, as the technology of extracting hydrocarbons has put supply ahead of demand and the need for energy services — miles driven or flown, newspaper articles fetched to a screen, and buildings heated and cooled — is being met ever more efficiently.

Sernovitz, a longtime oil industry expert (and the author of two novels whose modest success drove him back into employment in oil), brings a lively eye to the field of fracking — or, more properly, hydraulic fracturing in shale rock. Does fracking lead to natural gas in drinking water? Sernovitz stands Manhattan upright as a yardstick, with Harlem as “the heavens” and the Battery deep underground. A well started at 60th Street, representing ground level, would descend straight along Lexington to 30th Street and then begin bending westward, with horizontal drilling at 27th Street. The fracking would take place only between 26th and 28th Streets, leaving water between 58th and 60th, standard aquifer depth, uncontaminated. So, in a word, no.

But fracking certainly has social impacts on rural communities. “A bunch of roughnecks — dudes who happily call themselves roughnecks — living alone in cheap motels and man camps is probably not going to lead to more book clubs. It’s going to lead to more fistfights, more teenage pregnancies, more and better drugs,” Sernovitz writes.

He quotes Tolstoy, who is seldom heard from in energy books, on whether momentous events rise from individuals or from larger forces. (Tolstoy said forces; Sernovitz leans toward individuals.) But he observes that there was no single eureka moment in the shale revolution, and that the revolution may not be over.

A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future
By Mason Inman
413 pp. Norton, $29.95.

Inman takes a Malthusian view in his biography of M. King Hubbert, the renegade geologist who predicted — correctly, it seemed for a time — that American oil production would peak around 1970. Hubbert labored as an outsider, puncturing the general optimism of the oil industry and the federal government. Studying the rate at which oil fields were discovered and reserves were identified, he predicted that eventually the United States would be reliant on imports. When oil approached $150 a barrel in 2008, nearly 20 years after his death, “Hubbert’s Peak,” as it was known, became gospel to the “peak oil” crowd, who predicted economic collapse.

Hubbert was an advocate of solar energy, although how exactly this would replace oil wasn’t specified. He also wanted an end to “the obsession with growth,” to match world resources with economic activity.

Inman, a journalist who specializes in energy and climate issues, argues that even now, with oil and gas production at rates previously thought impossible, Hubbert was right because we have reached the peak of “conventional oil,” from the rocks where it had been sought before shale was successfully tapped. “The long-term decline of conventional oil production in the United States, and the start of a similar decline worldwide,” he writes, “have matched Hubbert’s expectations closely — strikingly so, considering that his forecasts are now several decades old.”

But that’s a bit like predicting the future of aviation before the invention of the jet engine; new technologies can render traditional industries almost unrecognizable. And the book, though offering a nice tour of the supply side, misses much of the price response that changes the energy equation. Still, it is an instructive account of the power of groupthink and the value of independent minds.

The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s
By Meg Jacobs
371 pp. Hill & Wang, $35.

Nasty energy surprises have a way of recycling themselves, and there are lessons to be learned from this. Jacobs writes about a time out of mind when fuel was in such short supply that you were allowed to purchase it only on alternate days, odd or even, depending on the last digit of your license plate; when the Daytona 500 was cut to 450 miles; and when the president held a fireside chat dressed in a cardigan sweater. It was, she writes, a crisis that transformed American politics, killing off New Deal liberalism and faith in government, and ushering in the current era of right-leaning reliance on markets.

“If the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal taught Americans that their presidents lied, the energy crisis showed them that their government didn’t work,” writes Jacobs, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton. It is a bygone era that she describes, when politicians sent telegrams, leaders talked about national self-­reliance that would insulate us from the rest of the world’s troubles and Congress actually worked.

“Panic at the Pump” is a thoughtful tour of an era we would rather not think about, carefully retracing the economics that made the United States dependent on oil imports, and the crises that made that dependence so painful, including the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979. She chronicles the strutting and fretting of government figures who disagreed on how to cope with the shock.

The political shift she observes actually happened, but causation is less certain. The 444-day seizure of American Embassy personnel by Iranian militants, the bitter aftertaste of Vietnam and stagflation certainly contributed. And missing completely is the role of technology, much of it driven by government: Along with a revolution in drilling, new cars now get twice as much work out of a gallon of gasoline, and that could double again.