Tribute to M. King Hubbert

In a "Letter to Members" from the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 19--Number 4, April 1990, M. King Hubbert was given this tribute:

The Council of the National Academy of Sciences, meeting on December 15, 1989, expressed the sorrow of the membership at the death of M. King Hubbert on October 11, 1989, at the age of 86.

Although most renowned for having predicted an oil shortage some 20 years before it actually occurred, Marion King Hubbert's major contribution to science was his application of physics to geological processes. He dealt with the mechanics of geologic structures; the physics of underground fluids (applying model theory in detail to tectonic problems and producing penetrating analyses of the dynamics of fluids moving through porous media); and the earth's mineral resources and their significance in human affairs. "Eminently theoretical," as he described it, his work yet had eminently practical implications: drastic societal reforms to conserve mineral resources and changes in foreign policy toward the oil-producing nations. In ground-water hydrology and petroleum geology, it opened up whole new fields.

Born October 5th, 1903, in San Saba, Texas, King Hubbert took his B.S. (1926), M.S. (1928), and Ph. D. (1937) degrees at The University of Chicago, where he studied not only geology, but also physics and mathematics. For a year and a half he also worked as an assistant geologist for Amerada Petroleum Company, spending his summers exploring for minerals with the Illinois State and US Geological Surveys. As senior analyst with the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington from 1942-1943, he conducted some of his first mineral-resource studies.

He worked for Shell Oil and Shell Development Companies in Houston over the next 20 years--first as a research geophysicist, then associate director of exploration and production research, and finally as chief consultant in general geology. Leaving Shell in 1963, he became, jointly, a research geologist with the US Geological Survey and professor of geology and geophysics at Stanford. Five years later, however, he left Stanford and was induced to return to academia only in 1973, when he was appointed California Regents' professor at Berkeley. Retiring from academia for good in 1976, he remained active with the US Geological Survey, his longstanding disagreement with their inflated resource estimates notwithstanding.

In February 1975, when America was laboring under an oil shortage that took most of the country by surprise, a National Academy of Sciences report confirmed the Academy's acceptance of King Hubbert's calculations on the rate and extent of oil and natural gas depletion and its rejection of more optimistic estimates. "A child born in the middle 30s," Hubbert told reporters, "will have seen the consumption of 80 percent of all American oil and gas in his lifetime; a child born about 1970 will see most of the world's [reserves] consumed."

King Hubbert first came to these unpopular conclusions in 1949, when the earth's wealth seemed limitless and predictions of doom could be easily ignored. But by 1956 he had mathematical proof: a formula (that resulted in a curve known as "Hubbert's Pimple") that could be used to plot consumption rate and remaining reserves of any exhaustible resource. His conclusion that ever-escalating oil production would peak in 1966 (or, given larger reserves, in 1971) then fall off rapidly as reserves dwindled, shocked the oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute.

"Growth, growth, growth, that's all we've known," he said in 1975. "World automobile production is doubling every ten 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."

Despite ever larger estimates of the country's untapped oil reserves (culminating in the US Geological Survey's 1961 figure of 590 billion barrels!), evidence from the field consistently followed his predicted curve, confirming his modest 150-200 billion barrel estimate. Yet, rather than importing and storing foreign oil as he advised in his 1958 report, the federal government embarked on a larger interstate highway program. In 1962, King Hubbert authored a 150-page energy section in the Academy's natural resources study submitted to President Kennedy, but his recommendations (since proved accurate but toned down in the executive summary) were once again ignored. Another warning in 1967 also went unheeded, and it was not until 1973 that both the public and government agencies began to take note.

But if public officials responded slowly to King Hubbert's message, he was much honored by his fellow scientists. Elected to the Academy in 1955 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957, he received the Geological Society of America's Arthur L. Day Medal two years later and became the body's president in 1962. In 1977 he received the Rockefeller Public Service Award.

"It is... the clearest mark of Hubbert's work," said C.B. Raleigh in 1981 when Columbia University presented him with its prestigious Vetlesen Prize, "that the mechanical principles involved were laid down so clearly and elegantly [in Hubbert and Rubey's (NAS-dec.) 1959 treatment of mountain-building and overthrust faulting]. When the seminar was over, we had received a thorough education in some aspects of classical mechanics in addition to the geological evidence needed to make the case for their hypothesis."

The author of more than 70 journal articles and several books on ground water, structural geology, and energy resources, King Hubbert was also an excellent speaker and spent 1973-1974 lecturing on "The World's Energy Economy" throughout the United States and Canada. As a scientist he applied rigorous physical reasoning to the study of complex geological phenomena, bringing many apparently paradoxical observations regarding earth fluids into conformity with potential theory. As a principled citizen of the world he was courageously outspoken, defying conventional wisdom to inform government, business, and the public regarding the need for natural resources conservation. He will be greatly missed.

We resolve in the minutes of this meeting that we were fortunate to have known M. King Hubbert and to have counted him a member of our Academy fellowship for 34 years. We further resolve that a copy of this resolution be presented to Miriam Hubbert as a symbol of our sympathy and very great regard.