Interview of M. K. Hubbert by Steve Andrews in 1988


I spent four hours interviewing Hubbert in March of 1988, plus I spoke with him on the phone a few times prior. What follows are some comments from that interview regarding world Ultimate Resource Recovery (URR) and his 1956 paper. Hubbert wasn't so concerned with what the ultimate number was; he was concerned with its implications -- what the ultimate might mean to society. I believe we ignore those implications at our peril.

I'll "share some of his thought processes" as they were expressed to me. (I still have the tapes, which captured about 90% of his comments; the interview was never published.)


"I was using commonly accepted data, the best data available...I was primarily estimating when the peak would occur." This was a recurring theme during the interview.

"My figure for the lower-48 was about 150 [BB], but the week before I presented my paper, a paper was released on peaceful use of atomic energy. Part of it included Pratt's data--one of the best-informed men on the subject. [I? He?*] asked the 25 best-qualified men to estimate oil reserves and limit their attention to the lower-48. A Dallas firm held out for 200 BB. These were all crude oil estimates. My conclusion: the best estimate was between 150 and 200 [URR]..."

"I was told the [1956] paper made the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times. A McGraw Hill journal also analyzed it. It created quite a stir at Shell; the principal VP went through the roof--he just about had catfits. But once they had time to study it, they found they couldn't refute it. In July, Shell started high-level training for hand-picked top management, at the Harrimann Mansion near West Point. I lectured at that school for five years...[One senior executive, five years ago] "...wrote that I was the most pessimistic geologist he had ever heard, and how right I had turned out to be...."

About conversations with colleagues in the oil industry: "In a typical bull session in the industry, the question would often come up: 'How long will it be before the peak of our production?' The intuitive judgement: 'Here we've been in the oil business 100 years and produced a whisker over 50 BB.' For the 150-200 case, their intuitive answer was 'not in our lifetimes, but our grandchildren may have to worry about this.' ..."

[Other comments regarding industry responses to Hubbert's prediction about the peak of US production:] "The first reaction was honest: 'The guy must be crazy.' It violated their intuitive judgement. Everyone went back to take their best look at this quantity. There were two camps then. Some found it fell in their range of estimates and that they couldn't avoid the same conclusion. Others found the conclusion so abhorent that they couldn't accept it. But you don't change the implications of that 1970 peak production by small figures; it takes big ones. Within a year, the figures began to escalate. At the end of five years, they had tripled..."

"During the late 1950's, there was a vigorous movement in the USGS and Department of Interior promoting the thesis that you couldn't trust the petroleum industry's figures [for US URR]; they were biased, too low. The USGS tried to get them to raise their figures. The industry's response: 'That isn't statistics, that's guesswork.' ..."

"The USGS's figure of 590 was way out in right field...[In 1968] I pointed out that McKelvey's figures, if true, meant that the US peak wouldn't come until the turn of the century... The prestige of the USGS was such that their figures were taken seriously for government officials for 15 years, though the industry was not so taken in. The USGS misled the government for 15 years, until they fired him. [I believe he refers here to McKelvey.] It was one of the great scientific institutions in the country..."

As for Hubbert's estimates and calculations on gas: "In the Senate report, the gas data was fouled up. I did the best I could with them. It just didn't fit anything. I made a crude estimate of 1050 tcf." [That isn't much by way of comment...]

Back to oil: "The only legitimate test was to look at the future; 'Let's wait and see what happens.' It began to happen at the end of the 1960's....Where we are now, which we didn't have before [in 1956], is that production figures alone can tell the story. We couldn't do that before the peak..."

"In 1978, I got a telephone call from Houston. 'You wrote this report in 1956. How about writing an update report for the API meeting?' I made an oral presentation; I didn't have enough time to submit a paper. I reviewed historically and made a new estimate [for the lower-48 onshore]. My data was 163 BB; the data would allow no exception--it was the best I could do, but I thought it was too low...It will be more than 170, but not a hell of a lot more. It could be 180. I'm going to go back and re-examine the data; I'll try to see if I can find out what went wrong..."

His broader thinking: "We're dealing with a cultural problem -- 200 years of exponential growth culture. Rapid growth is a transient, temporary phenomenon....Were we a rational society, a virtue of which we have rarely been accused, we would husband our remaining supplies and institute a program comparable to the Manhattan Project. We could to it tomorrow; we have the technology already... At the same time, it probably requires a spiral of adversity. In other words, things have to get worse before they can get better. The most important thing is to get a clear picture of the situation we're in and the outlook for the appraisal of where we are and what the time scale is. The time scale is not centuries, it's decades."


With the USGS coming in with a figure of 590 BB and Hubbert being willing to use around 200 (I saw 216 in print as his US estimate that included both Alaska and offshore), do you think Hubbert or Zapp/McKelvey will end up being closer to the US/URR mark -- comparing two estimates from the same era? Do the production data to date support the more optimistic or more pessimistic US figures for URR?

And how about the implication here for the past US peak and a future world peak? If there will eventually be (optimistically) 300 BB produced from the US, and we peaked in 1970, and we're down 40% today from our 1970 Hubbert-predicted peak, it's interesting to note that MORE than half of the oil would be produced AFTER the peak. Will more than half of the WORLD's oil be produced after the peak too?

The peak, or perhaps the plateau (I'm reminded of Mt. Massive here in Colorado) is the key. The better the production numbers thereafter, the better our chances to transition to whatever's next, unless we don't realize that we have to actively invest in that transition. If we don't actively make that investment, things thereafter could go to hell in an economic handbasket.

Oil coming from "everywhere" will be right, until the peak. Then the oil bears will be right... somewhere over your "horizon." Hubbert, Ivanhoe and Campbell/Laherrere can be criticized because their fixed URR estimates can't anticipate changing economics and evolving technology. But the only argument therein is "when."

The rate of flow "from everywhere" will be slower than in the past, because that oil is more expensive to produce in generally smaller quantities (also recent O&GJ) from more harsh and/or politically unstable areas than those of the past. I liked the stability of oil from Midland yesterday and the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea today much more than from the Middle East, Nigeria and the "Stan's" (FSU) tomorrow. Not to mention offshore Greenland where we supposedly have the world's fourth-largest oil field waiting on the sidelines, to replace the starting quarterback and take us to the future oil superbowl of ever- increasing world demand....

Steve Andrews, August 18, 2000