Posted by: drgeophysics | July 12, 2009

M. King Hubbert and Peak Oil


M. King Hubbert was an exploration geophysicist who was active in hydrocarbon exploration and development within the United States and  internationally beginning in the Great Depression through the 1970’s. After a career of hydrocarbon exploration and field development he applied his knowledge of geophysics towards the overall evolution of global hydrocarbon-based resources. This naturally led him to surprisingly conclusions, of which he was out spoken. He also thought on a larger scale, seeing links between energy exploitation and economic development, on a country and global level.  He was a no-nonsense oil man, and the photo above is my favorite of many you can find on the web.  This picture was taken in the depths of the Great Depression, M. King Hubbert is in the center (did I mention he was a no-nonsense oil man?).

Here are some links relevant to his contribution to the understanding of Peak Oil (the natural consequence of depletion of a finite resource).

M. King Hubbert and Peak Oil.

Some of the mathematics and models involved are presented here.

How well does this theory fit actual oil field depletion? Very accurately.

Listen to him presenting his ideas on youtube:

Note the discussion around 1.46 minutes.

Hubbert was largely ignored and quite out spoken. Here are some quotes:
“I was in New York in the 30’s. I had a box seat at the depression. I can assure you it was a very educational experience. We shut the country down because of monetary reasons. We had manpower and abundant raw materials. Yet we shut the country down. We’re doing the same kind of thing now but with a different material outlook. We are not in the position we were in 1929-30 with regard to the future. Then the physical system was ready to roll. This time it’s not. We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.

We are not starting from zero,” he emphasizes. “We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. We still have great flexibility but our maneuverability will diminish with time.

Society must be made stable. This means abandoning two axioms of our culture . . . the work ethic and the idea that growth is the normal state of affairs. Growth is an aberration. For most of human history the population doubled only once every 32,000 years. Now it’s down to 35 years. That is dangerous. No biologic population can double more than a few times without getting seriously out of bounds. I think the world is seriously overpopulated right now. There can be no possible solutions to the world’s problems that do not involve stabilization of the world’s population and as a corollary the worlds economies.

Work is becoming increasingly unimportant. It is conceivable that the future work week might be on the order of 10 hours or less. Indeed, because production will have to be limited by increasingly limited mineral resources, a reduced workweek is inevitable. Most employment now is merely pushing paper around. The actual work needed to keep a stable society running has become a small fraction of available manpower.

The key to making this cultural alteration is to come up with a limitless supply of cheap energy, solar power, and no more technological breakthroughs are needed before it can be made universally available”

These are taken from this comment, which got me thinking about all this again.

Even National Geographic reported this viewpoint during the 1970’s oil crisis.

Energy Bulletin has an excellent presentation of these materials with many great links, as does this excellent site.

This is an excellent site, which honors a scientist who gave important and far-sighted advice.

If his insights had been taken seriously and the global energy foundation had moved away from hydrocarbons, beginning in the 1970’s, how would things be different today for our industrial society?

Understanding of these issues clearly is based upon science education and earth science education.  How bad can this be?  Very bad.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is, according to the US Department of Education, “the largest, most comprehensive, and most rigorous internationa l comparison of education ever undertaken.” In the 1995 school year, TIMSS tested 500,000 students from 41 nations at five different grade levels on math and science topics. The study included tests, questionnaires, curriculum analyses, videotaped classro om observations, and policy issue case studies. Representative random samples of students and teachers were used to collect data for the study. Coordination of the study was funded by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Canadian government. Each participating country was required to follow data collection guidelines and pay the costs of gathering the data.

U.S. twelfth graders finished near the bottom of the twenty four nations who participated in the test. The results of the study, released February 24, 1998, showed that U.S. students outperformed only three countries — Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa. The Netherlands and Sweden had the highest scores.

Here is the report.

I have noticed this lack of knowledge about the earth science myself in my travels within the United States and internationally.  If you ask someone where “oil” comes from, specifically, be prepared for a rather vague answer.  The “drill baby drill” theme, to an oil man, was utter nonsense.  Each well costs around $5 to >$45 million apiece, and is only drilled after extensive reflection seismic and exploration of a potential site.  Hydrocarbon accumulations are difficult to find and rather rare with respect to global geology.  The Colorado Geological Survey describes how oil forms. Here is a link to the National Oil and Gas Assessment by the United States Geological Survey.

Education in the United States in areas of the earth sciences is amazingly poor, shockingly, as documented by the AGI.  This level of ignorance is clearly not in the national strategic interest, however politically useful in the short term it might be.  Here is an excellent site from the United States Geological Survey for educational materials.

Professor David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology has investigated this extensively and has excellent presentations, including point point slides, excel workbooks and videos available.  I urge you to review and carefully think about these insights.  They are centrally important to our society.

Over the long run these may have been the most important issues raised for our industrial society to consider. The complexity of the human response to scientific progress is mirrored by this well written post about Robert Fitzroy.



  1. If you’d like to read more about peak oil and Hubbert, see my book published by W.W. Norton this month (April 2016), The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future.

    It’s the first biography of Hubbert, and it covers his whole body of work but focuses primarily on his peak oil predictions and his wider ideas about energy and society.

    Last week the book received very positive reviews the journals Science and Nature. A couple of quotes from those reviews are below, and links to the full reviews, along with others’ comments on the book, are on my website,

    Science: “The Oracle of Oil is a masterful telling of Hubbert’s life and ideas, written by journalist Mason Inman, a knowledgeable and graceful storyteller.”

    Nature: “In Hubbert’s story, Inman has found a meditation on the booms and busts that marked twentieth-century economic growth.​… In writing the first biography of Hubbert, Inman has retrieved, if not rescued, the story of a scientist who has much to offer to today’s energy conundrum.”

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