Shell Execs Briefed on Peak Oil in 1956

Written by David Room and edited by Steve Tanner of the Hubbert Tribute

The content of this article, including quotations by M. King Hubbert, are from an oral history interview with Marion King Hubbert by Ronald E. Doel, January 4 to 6 February 1989, located at the Niels Bohr Library of the American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD.

M King Hubbert PortraitThis is first of a number of articles in the Hubbert Chronicles. In this installment, M King Hubbert predicts peak oil and educates Shell Oil corporation employees for years following his seminal 1956 speech. Shell understood the import of what Hubbert was saying and they repeatedly brought him in to present at executive retreats. Our story begins with the context for Hubbert’s seminal speech and peak oil prediction – the Roaring 50s.

In 1950, the United States was the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil, making it mostly self-sufficient. The U.S. also was the largest creditor nation, while its manufacturing output fed the world’s demand for tools and machinery. This new world power from the West emerged relatively unscathed from the second of two world wars, for which its unprecedented access to oil proved the deciding factor. This quite literally was America’s peak in wealth and potential.

Before embarking on an ambitious plan to rebuild the bombed-out cities of Europe, the U.S. built more than 2 million homes on the homefront, mostly to meet the unprecedented demand of returning GIs. The resulting paradigm shift, constructed around a flawed assumption of infinite bounty, was the beginning of the suburbanization of America that continues to follow its terminal path. Intensive highway development would continue for decades, further solidifying American’s love affair with the automobile and redefining the American Dream.

1950s America was rapidly automating, highly productive but now using more carbon energy than human muscle. Thousands of laborers, many blue-collar African Americans, would be replaced by fossil-fuel-guzzling machines. Shell geologist M King Hubbert said in his seminal speech to members of the petroleum industry’s trade association that fuel and not human energy was doing virtually all of the work in the United States, replacing most human and animal labor. Some energy came from hydroelectric and other sources, but most of that was — and still is — fossil fuel.

In this context of American exuberance and seeming mastery of the world, Hubbert took a stand that was antithetical to the accepted view of what was “normal,” forecasting that the ultimate source of American power –– Texas gold — was headed for imminent decline. He took that stand, geographically speaking, in the heart of the U.S. oil patch.

Hubbert was invited to give a broad-brush picture of the overall world energy situation, including the state of U.S. energy resources, at the spring meeting of the Southwest Section of the American Petroleum Institute. Driving from Houston, he and his wife went to the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio to drop off 500 copies of his talk for distribution at the meeting. “To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by the petroleum press, wanting to know, was this paper going to be given? I said, ‘Why, certainly.’

“But it was perfectly obvious, there was something going on that I didn’t know about, and I was furious. The press, all the gas journals, various petroleum journals… the oil reporters… In fact, I was so angry that I refused to go back to my hotel… my wife and I had dinner and went to a motion picture, and we didn’t get back to the hotel room until around midnight. And then the next morning, when the meeting was opening, the program consisted of the Mayor of San Antonio giving an address of welcome. I was the next speaker, when I got a signal calling me off the platform,” Hubbert recalled in a 1989 interview.

While the Mayor was making his address, Hubbert got a telephone call from an executive assistant in New York, expressing “considerable alarm” about his paper. The assistant pleaded with Hubbert to “tone it down,” taking out parts he claimed were “sensational.” To which Hubbert replied: “Nothing sensational about it, just straightforward analysis.” The assistant then asked Hubbert, “That part about reaching the peak of oil production in ten or fifteen years, it’s just utterly ridiculous.”

Hubbert tried to get the admin off his back, since he was supposed to take the podium after the Mayor, who was currently speaking.

Hubbert later recalled, “The vice president for so-called public relations, otherwise known as propaganda, had read… a release on it, and had gone through the ceiling.” The release had been written by the PR department in Houston. The New York office didn’t even have a copy of the paper.

“All they had was a synopsis written by the public relations man in Houston. But anyhow, they blew up in smoke, and there wasn’t a responsible official in the New York office. They were all out at a meeting somewhere else… Anyhow, I went ahead, gave my paper, informally of course but with lantern slides and exactly as written. No modification whatever. And later when I got back to Houston, I found that the tension was very high around the office in Houston. Apparently all hell had been going on during my absence,” Hubbert said.

Hubbert at podium for 1956 API Speech
Photo courtesy of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

In his talk, Hubbert explained the growth of fossil fuel extraction along a bell curve and how the downward slope from concave to convex can be used to predict when the rate of growth would stop at a peak before declining. Knowing that the production both started and ended at zero simplified the mathematics such that Hubbert could forecast the peaking of the lower 48 states using an estimate of total recoverable reserves. Rather than conjure up his own numbers, Hubbert used the range of the estimates for the most highly regarded geologists of the time – 150 to 200 million barrels. Simply graphing the curves and counting squares, he showed that the lower 48 states would peak between 1965 and 1971.

On that smaller scale, at least, his theory was proven.

Hubbert also plotted oil on a scale of 10,000 years – 5,000 years ago to 5,000 years in the future – showing how mankind’s use of petroleum is “a unique event in human history, a unique event in biological history. It is non-repetitive, a blip in the span of time.” He then posited nuclear power as a possible substitute.

Hubbert’s forecast caused shock, consternation and denial in various parts of the petroleum industry. He would later say “That caused a jolt… The first reaction was honest incredulity. Then the industry split. One side refused to accept the situation and started changing the figures. The other side, people like Shell, found they could not change the figures.

“Well, after about a week, when the responsible people did begin to come back, I think there were some pretty red faces in the New York office and maybe even in Houston. For one thing, they had a chance to look at their data and they found they couldn’t disprove anything I’d said. So the whole thing had been a tempest in a teapot by people who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”

The 1956 volume of Production Practice, the journal of record for the American Petroleum Institute, didn’t come out until early 1957. Hubbert’s paper was the lead story. In the speech, Hubbert had said “the discovery, exploitation and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to but an ephemeral event in the span of recorded history”.

Shell deleted the following comments from the published paper that contained Hubbert’s estimates: “Assuming that this prognosis is not seriously in error, it raises grave policy questions with regard to the future of the petroleum industry. It need not be emphasized that there is a vast difference between the running of an industry whose annual production can be depended upon to increase on the average 5 to 10 percent per year and one whose output can be depended upon to decline at that rate. Yet in terms of the production of natural gas and crude oil, this appears to be what the petroleum industry is now facing.”

Shell replaced that prediction with the following statement: “The culmination for petroleum and natural gas in both the United States and the State of Texas should concur within the next few decades.”

Shell was just starting a new program of their highest level executive training, in-house training of hand-picked people who were obviously going up the executive ladder, and the first meeting was in July, 1956. Hubbert was one of the lecturers in that course. “They had 50 people holed up for a solid month, and most of the speakers were company officials, presidents, vice presidents, production exploration managers and so on. And a few outsiders brought in by Columbia Business School and so on as consultants from the outside. How to justify my being there? I wasn’t a president or a vice president, or high company official. So I was said to be there in the category of an outside consultant.”

The lecture was successful to this group; Shell had about two or three such meetings per year. Hubbert said he talked about the same topics he covered at that API meeting in San Antonio, complete with lantern slides. “And so I was, you might say, an outside member of that group… So I talked to most of the potential officialdom of Shell Oil Company in the ascendancy.”

They responded with “a certain amount of uneasiness,” he recalled. “I have a letter that I received… five or six years ago, from a president… of Shell Chemical Company who said he’d been in one of those sessions where I’d talked. He thought I was the most pessimistic geologist he’d ever heard. And that I’d hit the nail right on the head.”

Hubbert Pimple
Photo courtesy of the Hubbert Tribute

Published in: on May 5, 2008 at 9:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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Chase Manhattan Predicted Peak Oil in 1956

Fifty two years ago – on March 8, 1956 – famed geologist and geophysicist M. King Hubbert stepped to the podium at the Spring meeting of the Southwest Section of the American Petroleum Institute and delivered a speech predicting that U.S. oil production would peak within 10-15 years. When oil did in fact peak in 1970, Hubbert enjoyed several years of acclaim and public attention during the mid to late 1970s. Hubbert’s calculations indicated that world oil peak would occur around 2000 but could be delayed 5-10 years or more by significant disruptions in world oil production. It now appears that conventional oil peaked in 2005. Many experts believe the world will peak in total petroleum liquids by 2012. We are woefully unprepared even if decline rates are lower than in the classic Hubbert model.

After the world peak in total petroleum liquids occurs, we will likely be told that the permanent energy crisis we are experiencing was a result of our not understanding energy or perhaps ignoring some obscure experts. We will likely be told that our energy policy of the past really was not an energy policy but that no one really knew what was happening at the time – that it was all just misguided, unorganized optimism and that we could not have done anything differently given the circumstances of the time. This is far from the truth.

In reality, all the information was on the table in the decade of the 1950s. Recoverable resource estimates in 1950s – which have proven to be highly accurate – indicated that we needed to be very careful with how we planned our future. Various experts including Hubbert, Pogue and Hill of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Andrew Crichton predicted that U.S. oil, natural gas, and coal resources could not possibly support a high growth economy for any reasonable length of time. A rational review of the recoverable resource estimates of the time suggests that we needed to begin a long term plan to create a sustainable society based on proven renewable energy sources.

Instead, key individuals in government, think tanks, and corporations opted to use their influence and decision making capacity to forward a perpetual high-growth economy dependent on high-grade finite fossil fuels in the hopes that technology would make low-grade resources economic over time. They believed that speculative technological advances including coal to liquids, oil shale, breeder reactors, fusion, and enhanced oil recovery would become economic in the long run, thereby justifying the continuing growth of a consumerist suburban, car-oriented way of life and fueling the development of a highly industrial globalized system for the rest of the world.

This imprudent technological optimism still continues today, with oft-unchallenged assumptions that many of the speculative solutions of the past and a few newer concepts (e.g., hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol) will be able to seamlessly replace oil, capture any carbon that is emitted in the process and eventually substitute any finite fossil fuel resource when its exhaustion is imminent.

In the next year, the Hubbert Tribute will begin the process of explaining how and why we are in the predicament we find ourselves in today. We will uncover articles and reports of yesteryear that forebode of today’s energy crisis. We will show the connections between some of the largest U.S. corporations, key government figures, and influential think tanks, and explain how they worked together to forward domestic and foreign policy that has us so egregiously dependent on oil and other dwindling fossil fuels. We will also explain the geopolitical circumstances that may have been used to rationalize these unfortunate decisions.

A prime example is a publication that came to the same conclusion as Hubbert’s 1956 speech and garnered even more attention from the media and policy makers – Future Growth and Financial Requirements of the World Petroleum Industry by Joseph Pogue and Kenneth Hill of the Petroleum Department of Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase Manhattan Bank is the world’s largest financier of petroleum development projects.

The Chase Manhattan report was published February 21, 1956 for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Petroleum Branch of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers and was reported in the New York Times. Hubbert also referenced this paper in his 1956 paper “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels” for his seminal speech. As shown in the figure below, the report concluded that US production would likely occur between 1965 – 1970 based on the assumption that only 85 billion barrels of oil would be discovered in the lower 48 states after 1956. The report also indicated that the costs associated with expanding efforts to find and produce petroleum in the United States would continue to increase and require greater capital investment in the petroleum industry.

Pogue and Hill Oil Curve

Over the past six months, the Hubbert Tribute has been educating presidential candidate staff on peak oil and will be expanding this effort to include key congressional leaders on the implications of peak oil. Our aim is help increase the likelihood that the incoming administration and Congress will develop a responsible national energy policy in the United States.

To justify any change in our present system and to provide the foundation for the development of responsible energy policy, we have to start with the basics – where we are now with respect to oil , how we got here, and what options we have going forward. We call this Oil Transparency.

A comprehensive Oil Transparency strategy would include the best information about oil still in the ground, as well as an understanding of the assumptions that go into world oil production models, what exactly is defined as oil, and how quickly and economically substitutes can be produced. Oil transparency can include alternative sources (like shale, tar sands, etc.) but must also openly consider the ecological and climate consequences of turning to these sources. Lastly, we need to understand how we came to be in this predicament. Deciphering U.S. energy policy over the past six decades will help us understand how we arrived to this perilous situation and what kinds of changes need to be put in place to make sure that the mistakes of yesteryear are not multiplied into the future.

We no longer have the luxury of planning our economy around speculative technological advances that may never materialize or believing that vast of amounts of energy resources will discovered or will replace oil just because they exist or somehow they may be discovered. We need a responsible energy policy that addresses both peak oil and climate change that has proven technologies at its core and rational standard methodologies for estimating EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) and carbon emissions for all proposed alternatives. This is the leading possibility for a development of a responsible energy policy that will begin the transition towards a sustainable future.

About the Hubbert Tribute

The Hubbert Tribute is energy policy think tank and an online tribute to one of America’s greatest thinkers and scientists, M. King Hubbert (1903-1989). The tribute was first unveiled on the 50 year anniversary of Hubbert’s seminal speech in 1956 when he predicted that U.S. oil production would peak within 10-15 years. The purpose of this tribute is to raise awareness of and celebrate Hubbert’s accomplishments, so that industrial society can better understand the contemporary significance of his work. The Hubbert Tribute aims to uncover more contextual information about M King Hubbert’s work and to better understand how U.S. energy policy was architected over the past half century as well as to help guide policymakers toward a sustainable energy policy.

Over the past six months, the Hubbert Tribute has spoken with staffers with every major presidential candidate and provided information on peak oil. We have worked with renowned energy experts including co-authors of the DOE funded “Hirsch Report” Roger Bezdek and Robert Hirsch, and former industry expert Jan Lundberg among others to provide briefings to the campaign staff of presidential candidates. The Hubbert Tribute is partnering with Inspiring Green Leadership and other peak oil experts to offer webinars and briefings on peak oil and climate change to all presidential candidates with the aim of getting these issues on their radar − if not their platform.

Please contact about internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as about donating to this essential work.

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Published in: on March 8, 2008 at 11:58 pm  Comments (12)  
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Busting the Hubbert Myths Part I

By Jason Brenno and David Room of the Hubbert Tribute

Over the next several months, the M King Hubbert Tribute will publish a series of articles that discredit some popular myths surrounding the work of M King Hubbert – the father of peak oil theory – that are beginning to be accepted as fact and thereby confounding the peak oil debate.

The first myth is that Hubbert was stuck on one projection for world oil production.

Peter Jackson of Cambridge Energy Research Associates exclaims: “Despite his valuable contribution, M. King Hubbert’s methodology falls down because it does not consider likely resource growth, application of new technology, basic commercial factors, or the impact of geopolitics on production. His approach does not work in all cases – including on the United States itself – and cannot reliably model a global production outlook.” [1]

Jackson and other optimists contend that peak oil is several decades away.

In fact, Hubbert had a flexible conceptual model of world oil production as demonstrated by two differing models for world oil production that he published and discussed in the latter stage of his career. His traditional model had a peak of world production occurring before 2000.

Hubbert, however, recognized that there were multiple scenarios for world oil production and he documented at least two of them. The diagram below is from a paper by Hubbert from the American Journal of Physics in November 1981 [2].

hubbert1.jpgReproduced with permission from American Association of Physics Teachers Publications. Copyright 1981, American Association of Physics Teachers.Hubbert explains the figure “shows the rate of world crude oil production to the end of 1977 and two possible complete cycle curves, based upon a value of 2000 billion barrels for [total recoverable reserves]. The first represents an orderly rise and decline on the assumption of no major political or economic disturbances. This curve would reach its peak about the year 1995, and its middle 80% time span would be about 58 years from 1965 to 2003. The second assumes that due to Middle East and other disturbances, the rate of production remains fixed at the present rate of about 20 billion barrels per year until depletion decline occurs. For this curve the middle 80 percent span would be extended to about 81 years, or from about 1965 to 2056. In either case most of the world’s oil will be consumed during the lifetimes of children born within the last decade.”The chart is also in The Global 2000 Report to the President Entering the Twenty First Century by Gerald O Barney. [3]Hubbert also discussed an alternative oil production scenario where oil peak is delayed by a decade or more in the video for the American Hospital Association in 1975, an excerpt of which is available at In the wake of the 1973-1974 oil crisis, Hubbert said that OPEC countries were curtailing production causing world oil production to deviate from his traditional model. He continued “it’s conceivable that [the peak] might be shifted over to the backside a little bit… that would extend [the point at which 90% of the world’s recoverable reserves have been produced] about 7 or 10 years or so. But it doesn’t alter the basic thing that I’m saying significantly… in terms of human history, [the fossil fuels era] is a very brief epoch.” [4]

The “one model” myth is false. Clearly, Hubbert recognized decades ago that world oil production did not fit a strict bell curve, and therefore peak estimates would need to be adjusted over time to account for actual production. The implication is that many different scenarios are indeed possible and they depend on (among other things) the planned production policies of producer nations and changes in world oil demand do to geopolitical circumstances and conservation efforts. Despite that we may not yet have reached world oil peak, conventional oil is limited, may peak within the next decade, and prospective alternatives (e.g., shale oil) will not replace oil. Dismissing peak oil theory because Hubbert’s traditional model indicated oil would peak in 1995 is without merit.


  1. Why the “Peak Oil” Theory Falls Down – Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources by Peter Jackson Nov 10 2006
  2. [The Worlds Evolving Energy System American Journal of Physics, Volume 40, Number 11, November 1981
  3. The Global 200 Report to the President Entering the Twenty First Century by , Gerald O Barney, Study Director, Penguin Books,1982, p. 353.
  4. American Hospital Association Tim Robbins 1975

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Published in: on December 25, 2007 at 6:26 am  Comments (2)  
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