Wednesday, October 05, 2005

M. King Hubbert

Geophysicist and mathematician M. King Hubbert was born on this day in 1903 in San Saba, Texas.

In 1956, M. King Hubbert, the head of Shell Oil's research lab and a brilliant but cantankerous University of Chicago scientist, made a bold prediction that raised the ire of his powerful employer. Starting from the assumption that there is only so much oil in the ground, Hubbert designed a mathematical formula that could be used to chart the rate of consumption against the remaining reserves of any finite resource. The resulting curve, known as "Hubbert's peak," would roughly show the point in time at which the production of oil in the U.S. would peak and thereafter decline.

Hubbert's prediction? That the production of crude oil in the U.S. would peak some time between 1966 and 1971, then fall off rapidly to nearly zero. Shell Oil was aghast; Hubbert's estimate of future reserves in the U.S. was far below what Shell and its competitors had predicted, and Hubbert was failing to take into account the uncovering of new reserves and the improvement of exploration technology.

Hubbert stuck to his guns, however. In 1958, Hubbert published a report recommending that the U.S. increase its importation and storage of foreign oil -- in response to which, ignoring Hubbert's estimates, the U.S. government tapped Francis Turner to expand the interstate highway system. In 1962, he wrote the energy section for a National Academy of Sciences report commissioned by President Kennedy, but his conclusions about peak oil production were toned down for the executive summary. Hubbert reached the mandatory retirement age at Shell at age 60 and assumed joint appointments with the U.S. Geological Survey and Stanford University in 1964.

In February 1975, when the U.S. was experiencing a "surprise" oil crisis, the National Academy of Sciences finally accepted Hubbert's calculations, admitting that the U.S. peak had occurred in 1970 -- leaving Hubbert to conduct "I-told-you-so" interviews with the press. "A child born in the middle [19]30s will have seen the consumption of 80% of all American oil and gas in his lifetime," he declared, and "a child born about 1970 will see most of the world's [reserves] consumed."

With better statistical information, Hubbert's successors have concluded that worldwide peak oil production will occur no later than 2020, although industry diehards continue to dispute Hubbert's methodology, awaiting the new technology panacea. With consumption rates in China and India growing by leaps and bounds at the beginning of the 21st century, the Hubbertists claim that the peak could occur even sooner.

Some experts now believe that Hubbert's 1956 prediction should have been a Bill W. moment of self-awareness in America concerning its addiction to petroleum -- if you suddenly became aware of the fact that you would have to have your gin shipped to you from half-way across the world in specially-built tankers just to keep up with your glorious future thirst, wouldn't that be an opportune time to try to kick the habit? Although the macroeconomic significance of "Hubbert's peak" should have led public policy to favor the development of alternative energy sources in 1956, its macroeconomic significance 50 years hence is simply that buyers and sellers, in a world gravely dependent on oil, are now aware that the end is in sight, and prices will continue to rise accordingly.

While "Hubbert's peak" propelled Hubbert to visionary status, his earlier work in geophysics was also highly influential. In 1937, while teaching at Columbia, Hubbert employed a mathematical analysis to explain how the hardest of rocks forming the crust of the Earth could show signs of plastic flow under extreme geophysical pressures. By the 1950s, his work regarding the flow and entrapment of underground fluids caused the oil industry to rethink its basic exploration methods; and much later, Hubbert authored a compelling argument that overcrust faults, whose origins had long puzzled geologists, originated as a consequence of underground fluid pressures. Hubbert was also influential, at Stanford and at Berkeley (1973-6), in advocating that earth and environmental science programs place a greater emphasis on mathematics and physics. He passed away in 1989.

"Growth, growth, growth -- that's all we've known . . . World automobile production is doubling every 10 years; human population growth is like nothing that has happened in all of geologic history. The world will only tolerate so many doublings of anything -- whether it's power plants or grasshoppers." -- M. King Hubbert, 1975.

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Blogger jshen said...


Good information

I'm doing a project on Hubbert and was curious about the "I told you so" quote you featured from Hubbert. Can you tell me what newspapers or tv stations Hubbert gave interviews to during this period. Also, where'd you get the great drawing of him. I've been looking for photos and footage of him.

5:37 PM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

JShen --

I tried to reach you via your blog, but your blog is down for some reason -- so I hope you'll check in here and find this.

Here are some references for interviews that Hubbert gave during the mid- 1970s:

"Expert Doubts U.S. Can Substantially Cut Oil Imports by 1985," New York Times (Jul 8 1975), p. 53

"Scientist is Hopeful on World Resources," New York Times (Dec 2, 1976), p. 27

"A Scientist Looks Ahead," Chicago Tribune (Dec. 4, 1976), p. N10

"Offshore Oil Postpones Inevitable," Washington Post (Apr 7, 1974), p. L1

It should be noted that Hubbert was not a total pessimist -- he did believe we had the ability to solve our resource issues through conservation and improved technology.

I did the drawing of Hubbert myself. If you would like permission to use it on your website or in another published work, please send me your email address and I'll be happy to oblige.

Good luck in your research,


9:37 AM  
Anonymous Rod Liechty said...

Dear Ron,
I first read up on Huppert in the 70's, arranged for seminars led by some scientists from Oak Ridge on our insatiable consumption of fossil fuels and finite supply. Lost about 10 grand investing in a higher tech ethanol plant which failed...
Well, King is back nontheless and Detroit is losing its shirt again on huge inefficient trucks decked out as macho family vehicles.
Worse, our heads are in the sands of Iraq, having swallowed false premises and vainglorious flag waving expectations.
Who was the Republican Congressman on C-Span the other night who got out the Hubbert charts in a lucid reality check that we are very close to the peak and downhill slope of oil reserves globally?

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did King Hubbert pronounce his name with a long U or short u?

4:50 PM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

The preferred pronunciation is with a short u -- "Hubbert" as in "hub cap," as opposed to "Hubbert" as in "hubris."

10:02 AM  

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