Hubbert, Marion King
HUBBERT, MARION KING
(b. San Saba, Texas, 5 October 1903; d. Bethesda, Maryland, 11 October 1989),
experimental and theoretical geophysics, modeling, natural resources.
Hubbert’s scientific contributions fell into several key areas: understanding the strength of the Earth, determining the fundamental physics of fluid flow through porous media (critical for groundwater hydrology and petroleum exploration), and finding geophysical explanations for previously perplexing geological phenomena, particularly the mechanism responsible for overthrust faulting. He became best known for developing geophysical methods for calculating the total volume of oil and natural gas reserves in the United States and around the globe, introducing a graphical method for representing the exploitation of crucial minerals over time (the bell-shaped curve for oil, known today as peak oil or Hubbert’s peak). One of the most broadly educated geologists of his generation, Hubbert was also deeply involved in efforts to reform the discipline of geology, seeking to rebuild its foundations on physical principles. Driven by concern over natural resources, Hubbert analyzed available energy sources, campaigned for rational planning involving energy production, and backed population control efforts.
Youth on the Texas Frontier . Marion King Hubbert (he became M. King by high school) was born in San Saba, Texas, a flat farmlands area. His father, William B. Hubbert, descended from pioneer stock, was a rancher, and his mother, née Cora Virginia Lee, was a schoolteacher. He attended local schools, including the Methodist-run Cherokee Junior College (where he became valedictorian) and Weatherford College, graduating in 1923. Weatherford classmates described the then nineteen-year-old Hubbert as “a typical Horatio Alger type of schoolboy,” with strong intellectual interests (The Oak Leaf[published by the Student Association of Weatherford College], June 1922, in Box 80, folder “personal-education,” M. King Hubbert papers, American Heritage Center, Laramie, Wyoming).
Early in his college education Hubbert underwent a momentous shift, rejecting the religious fundamentalism of his parents and community as well as his own active involvement in Methodist youth activities. Having “turned heretic,” as he later wrote (to Morris W. Leighton, head of Illinois Geological Survey, June 23, 1931, Hubbert file 856–156, Illinois Geological Survey records), and determined to seek a secular education, he left his native Texas for the first time. In January 1924, with money saved from various jobs, including working on railroad track-laying crews, Hubbert arrived unannounced at the University of Chicago and requested admittance. After a probationary period, he became a full-time student, earning a BSc degree in geology and physics with a minor in mathematics in June 1926.
Immediately thereafter, Hubbert enrolled as a graduate student in Chicago’s Department of Geology. At the time the University of Chicago had one of the strongest geology departments in the nation, and Hubbert initially addressed problems involving structural geology, working particularly with J Harlen Bretz. His interests soon turned to geophysics, however. Hubbert’s decision to pursue geophysics came partly because he trained far more broadly than most of his peers: He studied chemical thermodynamics, physics and electricity, electrodynamics, and theoretical engineering chemistry in addition to petrography and geology. It also came from Hubbert’s conviction that a thorough grounding in these fields would help him resolve outstanding challenges in geology. Even before receiving a 1928 MS for a theoretical study on how thermodynamic processes contributed to producing geologic faults, Hubbert began publishing on a range of problems that intrigued him, including a well-received study of isostasy. He also gained experience in applied geophysics through summer work as an assistant geologist for the Amerada Petroleum Corporation, then (while on leave from Chicago) as a seismographic party member for Amerada’s newly formed Geophysical Research Corporation.
Geological Rebel . Hubbert left Chicago before finishing his doctorate (not until 1937 did he submit a set of papers that qualified him for the PhD). In 1931 he began teaching at Columbia University as an instructor in geophysics. Already by the 1930s, Hubbert embraced two firm convictions that would guide his research and professional career for the remainder of his life. The first was his strong belief that the discipline of geology, by pursuing efforts to codify unique laws of geology—and by failing to train students about fundamental principles in physics and chemistry—had made itself parochial and scientifically sterile. While at Columbia, Hubbert championed efforts to introduce new courses in geophysics into the curriculum. He also took on leadership roles in national campaigns by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers and other professional societies to review the state of geophysics training in universities, and campaigned to bring the emerging earth sciences fully within the domain of traditional departments of geology.
The second conviction that Hubbert nurtured during the 1930s was that many mineral and energy resources vital for contemporary civilization, including petroleum and natural gas, were more limited and already more exploited than widely realized, requiring a fundamental reengineering of society’s means of production and social governance. In 1932 Hubbert met Howard Scott, the brilliant but didactic engineer and utopian thinker who that summer had convinced the Columbia University engineering faculty to initiate a major hundred-year survey tracing U.S. industrial and agricultural development in terms of production, employment, and energy. Impressed by Scott’s knowledge of physical science, and loyal to Scott even after journalists revealed Scott’s exaggerated credentials, Hubbert cofounded with him the modern Technocracy movement, serving as Technocracy’s director of education through the 1930s. Understanding societal dynamics and uncovering the physical laws governing geological phenomena were, for Hubbert, interwoven and mutually dependent concerns.
While studying mineral economics for his Technocracy associates and teaching courses in basic geology and geophysics at Columbia, Hubbert also continued to apply physics to outstanding geological problems. In 1937 he resolved a standing paradox regarding the apparent strength of materials in the crust of the Earth, for such rocks, despite their evident strength, often show signs of plastic flow. Hubbert demonstrated mathematically that even the hardest of rocks at the Earth’s surface, subject to the immense pressures occurring across large areas, will respond in a manner similar to soft muds or clays. While serving during summer breaks as a geophysicist at the Illinois Geological Survey in the early 1930s, Hubbert also pioneered using electrical methods to map faults and to locate groundwater aquifers.
In 1940 Hubbert left Columbia University after failing to secure an appointment as an assistant professor following the awarding of his doctorate. He nevertheless made a final major geophysical contribution while in New York. After spending an intensive year examining the theory of groundwater flow, Hubbert published a book-length study that, drawing from his work on electrical conductivity and a new derivation of the Navier-Stokes equations, showed that the flow is governed jointly by fluid pressure and gravity, challenging prevailing ideas that groundwater invariably flowed from higher to lower pressures. This was a significant achievement, one that provided a physical interpretation of Darcy’s law, placed hydrology on a more rigorously theoretical basis, and changed the ways that petroleum corporations and geophysical engineers thought about the transport of fluids through porous media.
Beginning in April 1942, Hubbert spent eighteen months with the Board of Economic Warfare in Washington, D.C. Serving as senior analyst and chief of the Mineral Resources Unit, he supervised assessments of natural resources around the globe critical for the Allied war effort. After joining the board, Hubbert was accused by the U.S. Civil Service Commission of being unsuited for government employment because of his extensive involvement with Technocracy, which commission members deemed a fascist organization for promoting government-run industries and decision-making by educated engineers and planners. Testifying before the commission in 1943, Hubbert boldly reiterated his sympathies for combining “U.S. government powers” with those “held by the big corporations” to effectively manage employment and energy resources (transcript available from www.hubbertpeak.org). While Hubbert retained his wartime Washington appointment, as well as his deep interest in natural resources, he never again advertised his former association with Technocracy.
Career at Shell . In October 1943, Hubbert was hired by Shell Petroleum Company in Houston, Texas. Realizing that U.S. oil reserves would be substantially diminished following World War II, petroleum companies sought to increase their ability to use geophysical instruments and theories to more accurately predict undiscovered oil reserves and to better exploit existing wells. At Shell— where he became associate director of the newly established Shell Exploration and Production Research Laboratory— Hubbert served two roles. He helped formulate Shell’s postwar strategy for locating and exploiting oil deposits, running training programs for colleagues and for new recruits to the industry. Increasingly, as Shell managers came to regard Hubbert as a leading figure in petroleum geology and geophysics, he was also given a far-reaching mandate of doing open-ended research to improve geophysical theory and its applications to natural resource extraction. It was a rare opportunity in the petroleum industry, roughly equivalent to the intellectual freedom that the physicist Irving Langmuir had enjoyed at General Electric Research Labs in the early twentieth century.
Hubbert’s achievements at Shell were both institutional and scientific. By the mid-1950s Hubbert had made Shell’s research lab—by then known as the Bellaire Research Center—one of the strongest research facilities in the industry. Through his selection as a distinguished lecturer of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) in 1945 and again in 1952, allowing him to visit many university departments associated with the AAPG, Hubbert spoke widely about applied and theoretical geophysics, finding this an effective means to stimulate
theoretical physics approaches within traditional departments of geology.
While at Shell, Hubbert also continued his research into theoretical geophysics. In 1953 he extended his fundamental 1940 work on groundwater flow to petroleum entrapment, and in 1957 demonstrated that most hydraulic fractures are vertical, an important insight that led to a major reassessment of techniques employed to locate oil and natural gas deposits. Two years later, in collaboration with William W. Rubey, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Hubbert explained the puzzling displacement of enormous blocks of material, known to geologists as overthrust faults, as a consequence of fluid pressure between such blocks and underlying materials.
A prodigious worker who enjoyed considerable research assistance at the Bellaire facility, Hubbert was appointed consultant in general geology at Shell in the mid-1950s, providing him additional time for research. He published widely on issues relating to natural resources and accepted numerous outside tasks, including editorship of the journal Geophysics from 1947 to 1949 and the presidency of the Geological Society of America in 1962.
Predicting Oil and Natural Gas Reserves . The most enduring and controversial of Hubbert’s scientific contributions were the geophysical methods he devised to estimate the total volume of oil and natural gas in the continental United States and also worldwide, and his concurrent efforts to convince colleagues and political leaders that exponential growth in energy use threatened civilization, because a significant percentage of these resources had already been utilized. His interest in estimating global supplies of critical minerals dated back to his graduate studies at Chicago in the 1920s and his involvement in Technocracy, but was further stimulated by his work at Shell.
In 1956, at a regional meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, Hubbert predicted that total oil reserves in the lower forty-eight states was between 150 and 200 billion barrels (bbl). Hubbert based his calculation on an extrapolation of past drilling and discovery as well as production rates, arguing that the probability of oil discovery was directly proportional to the fraction of yet-undiscovered oil: Over time, both new oil field sizes and total oil production would decrease. For the first time, he also presented his results using a bell curve diagram (see Figure 1), which represented the total volume of petroleum in the continental United States; the apex of the curve, or peak, indicated the point at which half of this natural resource would be produced. Peak oil production in the United States, by his prediction, would occur between 1966 and 1971. In developing this methodology, Hubbert drew on the work of economic geologists such as Donnel Foster Hewett, his insider’s knowledge of expected petroleum reserves, and his conviction that the rate of discovery in a mature industry, coupled with firm geologic knowledge, would provide a far more accurate understanding of resources than rosy cornucopian projections made by economists unfamiliar with geology and physics.
Hubbert’s 1956 study, expanding research he first presented in 1948, was the first rigorous attempt to graphically predict oil and gas reserves production and remaining reserves. Although industry leaders at the time widely accepted continental U.S. oil reserves of 150 to 200 bbl, Hubbert’s prediction that peak domestic oil production would occur within fifteen years was staggering to many, sparking immediate controversy and heated public discussion. Responding to Hubbert’s 1956 work, geologists at the USGS, tasked with assessing national mineral resources, developed what became known as volumetric yield methods. In 1961 the USGS geologist Alfred D. Zapp, extrapolating average oil-production yields from already explored regions to less-well-explored parts of the country, calculated that the lower forty-eight states could hold a total of 590 bbl, nearly four times the amount Hubbert believed existed. Several petroleum company leaders joined USGS leaders, including its future director Vincent E. McKelvey, in quickly backing these higher estimates, urging policymakers to eschew figures that suggested an imminent energy crisis.
Simmering tensions between Hubbert and volumetric-yield advocates escalated in 1962, after the National Academy of Sciences asked Hubbert to prepare the energy section of a major report on natural resources requested by President John F. Kennedy. For his 1962 study, Hubbert combined his review of past discovery and production rates with industry figures for proven oil reserves, yielding an estimate of 170 bbl for the continental United States. Hubbert’s conclusions were disputed by USGS officials, although an effort to limit distribution of Hubbert’s energy report failed after Hubbert intervened with allies in the federal government. Responding to McKelvey, Hubbert wrote, “I submit that if the Zapp estimate were to be accepted as a basis for present policy, and if it should prove to be as erroneous as I think it is, the results in terms of national welfare could be embarrassing” (17 August 1962, p. 8, Box 153, NAS/NRC Resource Committee files, Hubbert papers, American Heritage Center, Laramie, Wyoming).
The rapidly escalating energy crisis in the early 1970s and subsequent gas rationing sparked renewed interest in total U.S. oil reserves, and Hubbert became a regular witness at congressional hearings on energy issues. After new studies validated Hubbert’s prediction that peak U.S. oil production had indeed occurred around 1971, incoming President Jimmy Carter in 1977 challenged national policies based on plentiful oil by forcing the resignation of then USGS director McKelvey. Through the 1970s and 1980s Hubbert continued to refine his predictions for peak oil, incorporating additional methodological approaches. By the end of the twentieth century most petroleum experts accepted Hubbert’s contention that historical discovery rates produce more accurate resource estimates than volumetric yield methods, although Hubbert’s particular methodology was found to work better for the continental United States than for global reserves. Already in his lifetime Hubbert gained folk hero status among conservationists who believed looming near-term exhaustion of oil supplies would deeply challenge technological civilization. An advocate of nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s, Hubbert came to emphasize solar power as a viable solution to human energy needs late in his career.
Awards and Later Career . After reaching Shell’s mandatory retirement age of sixty in 1963, Hubbert joined the USGS as a supergrade research employee, allowing him to further pursue his wide-ranging interests in geophysics, particularly estimates of total oil and gas reserves. He also accepted another long-standing offer to serve as a visiting professor of geology and geophysics at Stanford University, where he taught advanced seminars for one academic quarter each year until 1968; in 1973 he also served as a regents professor at the University of California at Berkeley. While not directly responsible for training graduate students, he did mentor several established young researchers, including David G. Willis.
Hubbert’s scientific activism broadened later in his life, along with his influence on science policy issues. In 1963, increasingly concerned that U.S. academic science was growing more receptive to the desires of patrons than to the pursuit of challenging problems, Hubbert wrote a widely noticed article in Science, “Are We Retrogressing in Science?” Echoing critiques of the military-industrial-academic complex, his piece also reflected emerging criticism of military funding for science in the Vietnam War era. He also continued to warn that available natural resources would not allow unchecked exponential growth of the human population, an issue that had first concerned him while involved in the Technocracy movement.
Throughout the end of his life, Hubbert continued to critique the intellectual foundations and practices of geology. With geologist Claude C. Albritton, a fellow Texan who like Hubbert had abandoned a fundamentalist, Biblical-literalism upbringing through exposure to science, Hubbert addressed emerging evidence for catastrophic processes in geology in 1967. Although his criticisms focused primarily on continued adherence to the principle of uniformity, Hubbert’s arguments provided support for neocatastrophists who by the late twentieth century declared catastrophic processes, including celestial impacts, to be fundamental geological processes. One of very few prominent mid-twentieth-century geophysicists with no ties to military research programs, Hubbert also advocated broader working definitions of the environmental sciences in graduate training than many of his colleagues, stressing biological as well as solid earth and atmospheric phenomena.
Hubbert received several honors and won significant prizes throughout his career. In addition to his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1955, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences two years later, Hubbert received the Anthony F. Lucas Medal from the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers in 1971. In 1977 he was awarded the Rockefeller Public Service Award from Princeton University, followed in 1978 by the William Smith Medal from the Geological Society of London. His later awards included the Elliott Cresson Medal from the Franklin Institute and the Vetlesen Prize from Columbia University (both 1981).
In 1931 Hubbert married Yelena Paulinova; this marriage ended in divorce in 1936. He married Miriam Berry Heath in 1950. No children resulted from these marriages. While raised Methodist, Hubbert moved ever further from formal religious practice as an adult. Politically liberal, late in life Hubbert became an active supporter of Democratic politicians who endorsed resource conservation measures, including Stewart L. Udall and Morris K. Udall. Acerbic and sharp-tongued, he remained loyal to friends and associates but showed little tolerance for those he considered misinformed or inattentive to scientific principles. Hubbert died in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from a pulmonary embolism, on 11 October 1989.
Comprehensive bibliographies of Hubbert’s primary works, as well as an extensive oral history interview conducted by Ronald E. Doel in 1989, are available at the Niels Bohr Library of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland, and the American Heritage Center of the University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming, where Hubbert’s papers are kept.
WORKS BY HUBBERT
“Theory of Scale Models as Applied to Study of Geological Structures.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 48 (1937): 1459–1520.
“The Theory of Ground-Water Motion.” Journal of Geology 48 (1940): 785–944.
“Strength of the Earth.” Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists29, no. 11 (1945): 1630–1653.
“Energy from Fossil Fuels.” Science109, no. 2823 (1949): 103–109.
“Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” Publication 95, Shell Development Company, 1956.
With William W. Rubey. “Role of Fluid Pressure in Mechanics of Overthrust Faulting.” Parts I and II. Geological Society of America Bulletin 70 (1959): 115–205.
Energy Resources—A Report to the Committee on Natural Resources. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, 1962. Reprinted by National Technical Information Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, Springfield, Virginia, 1973.
“Are We Retrogressing in Science?” Science 139 (1963): 884–890.
Bowden, Gary. “The Social Construction of Validity in Estimates of US Crude Oil Reserves.” Social Studies of Science15, no. 2 (1985): 207–240.
Clark, Robert Dean. “King Hubbert: Science’s Don Quixote.” Geophysics, the Leading Edge of Exploration 2, no. 2 (1983): 16–24.
Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Doel, Ronald E. “Hubbert, Marion King.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Available from http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/HH/fhu85.html.
National Academy of Sciences. “Tribute to M. King Hubbert.” Letters to Members(National Academy of Sciences) 19, no. 4 (April 1990).
Priest, Tyler. The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.
Ronald E. Doel
Hubbert, Marion King
Hubbert, Marion King
The greatest contributions in science come from those that are able to see the big picture, to be able to see relationships between seemingly very different observations and bring them together into a coherent hypothesis. Marion King Hubbert is widely recognized for his ability to contribute in this manner.
Hubbert was born on October 5, 1903 in San Saba, Texas. He received his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees all from the University of Chicago, with a double major in geology and physics, and a minor in mathematics. In the process of obtaining his Ph.D., Hubbert began teaching geophysics at Columbia University, and continued for several years afterwards. During these summers he performed geophysical work with the Illinois State Geological Survey, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Amerada Petroleum Corporation in Oklahoma.
Hubbert made a name for himself by finding unconventional solutions to some of earth science's most puzzling problems. In 1937, the year that Hubbert received his Ph.D., he succeeded in demonstrating that the hard rocks that compose the Earth's crust show evidence of flow when under pressure, much like clays. Three years later, Hubbert published "The Theory of Ground-Water Motion," which was the first publication of several groundwater flow models still accepted today.
Oil and Gas Research
For 20 years, Hubbert worked for the Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas, first as the director of the research laboratory, and eventually as chief geology consultant. One of the results of his research was the creation of methods to calculate the amount of remaining oil and natural gas in the world, during a time when it was assumed that natural resources could never be depleted. In 1956, Hubbert's calculations resulted in the prediction that an oil production peak would occur in the late 1960s to early 1970s, an estimate which was later validated.
Hubbert also improved the manner of locating oil and natural gas by researching the fracturing and deformation of rocks, and developed a technique called "hydraulic fracturing." This technique uses fluid, placed under great pressure, to produce fractures (cracks) in the rock to enhance the recovery of oil and natural gas in hard-to-retrieve places.
In 1959, Hubbert solved one of the great paradoxes facing geologists at the time, involving overthrust faults. In parts of the world such as the Alps, there is evidence that long but relatively thin plates of Earth had moved many kilometers without being significantly fractured. The prevailing ideas suggested that the thinness of these rocks would cause them to be too weak to be pushed without breaking, considering the friction along their bases. However, Hubbert suggested that resistance would be minimal if the rocks floated on high-pressure fluids. It was established that fluids can indeed exist at such pressures, and his hypothesis was accepted.
Retiring from Shell in 1964, Hubbert became a senior research geo-physicist at the U.S. Geological Survey while also teaching at Stanford and Berkeley. Hubbert received many honors throughout his life, including the Vetlesen Prize from Columbia University, the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America, and the Rockefeller Public Service Award. He was a member of many organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of America (of which he was president), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Hubbert died in 1989, 6 days after he turned 86.
see also Brines, Natural; Groundwater; Modeling Groundwater Flow and Transport; Plate Tectonics.
Amy B. Parmenter
Raleigh, C. B. "The Vetlesen Prize to M. King Hubbert". EOS 63, no. 17 (1982): 249–251.
"Hubbert, Marion King." The Handbook of Texas Online. The Texas State Historical Association. <http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/>.
"Tribute to M. King Hubbert." Hubbert Peak of Oil Production. Ecotopia. <http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/tribute.htm>.
WATER, GRAVITY, AND A LITTLE PUSH
The origin of many thrust faults (low-angle, reverse fractures, where older rocks are thrust over younger rocks) has not always been clear: Do these faults result from compression, or from simple downhill sliding, or both?
Marion King Hubbert devised a simple, often repeated experiment in support of gravity sliding, rather than compression. He placed a beer can on a very low-angle pane of chilled glass, wherein the angle was well below 5 degrees from the horizontal. The can moved down-slope perceptibly, indicating a push was not necessary. In the field, however, it is recognized that the presence of water in the rocks is critical to the thrusting.