In 1948 - a boom year in America - a man took the floor at a prestigious gathering of scientists and warned that, as good as the future looked, it wouldn't last. America would begin running out of oil in about 1970.
Geologist and geophisicist M. King Hubbert may thus be the man who discovered the energy crisis. Today, nearly 30 years after he sounded the alarm, Hubbert is being recognized for his contribution by being named one of seven recipients of the 1977 Rockefeller Public Service Award.
The award, given yearly to recognize achievement in areas of critical national concern, will bring Hubbert $10,000.
"It was not until after the "1973 oil crisis that Hubbert's scientific achievement was recognized," said the statement accompanying the award notice. "His report to Congress laid the foundation for U.S. energy policy."
Hubbert apparently was the first person ever to point out, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 100th birthday celebration in 1948, that energy from oil and gas had changed the way the world worked, but only temporarily.
"The consumption of energy from fossil fuels is seen to be but a 'pip' (on a chart), rising sharply from zero to maximum and almost as sharply declining, thus representing but a moment in the total of huma history," he wrote in the 1948 paper, "Energy from Fossil Fuels."
"I was swamped with mail," said Hubbert, now 74 and retired in name only to a sprawling, airy home in Montgomery County, just over the Washington line. "That was the 1948 version of what I've been talking about ever since."
In 1956 he said the same thing again, only more-specifically. "I had some access to inside information," he said, referring to his position then as a researcher with Shell Oil in Houston. Taking the industry's own range of estimates as to how much oil was left beneath tht U.S., which was between 150 billion and 200 billion barrels, he showed that peak production would be reached in 15 to 20 years (1970-75) and then would decline sharply.
"It was quite a shock to the petroleum industry - jolted hell out of the executives, including my own." The industry thereupon broke into two camps which persist to this day, Hubbert said: one that accepted the figures and turned toward ways of dealing with them, and the other camp that rejected the estimates. "The figures began to escalate in print within a year," Hubbert called.
At that point there began Hubbert's 20-year argument with Vincent E. McKelvey, then assistant chief geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, which McKelvey now directs.
Although industry estimates of U.S. petroleum reserves had reached 450 billion barrels, "the USGS trumped them by 50 per cent," Hubbert said, estimating 500 billion barrels in 1961. "That was utterly astonishing." Hubbert came up with a figure of 170 billion barrels in a 1962 study, and, he has stuck with that figure ever since.
The USGS disagreed.Hubbert retired from Shell Oil in 1963 and went to work for USGS, but he had no impact on their reports, he said. By 1972 the USGS was estimating U.S. petroleum reserves at between 497 billion and 2,417 billion barrels. Hubbert was still at 170 billion, plus 62 billion for Alaska. "I stuck with the evidence."
President Johnson was made aware of Hubbert's 1962 estimates, but paid no attention to them, Hubbert said. Hubbert testified before Sen. Henry Jackson's energy committee in 1972 and the publication of that testimony led to "the first step down ladder" by USGS geologists.
After the 1973 Arab oil embargo, USGS set up a special oil and gas branch that went back to the drawing boards on reserve estimates. In 1975, the group reported that U. S. reserves, including Alaskan oil, were within a range whose low end (the amount that is 95 per cent probable) was 218 billion barrels, slightly less than Hubbert had been saying all along.
Hubbert darts back and forth from his groaning bookshelves for supporting studies, documents, magazines, books. He believes - "Hell, yes," - that USGS estimates and McKelvey in particular delayed American recognition of the coming energy problem.
"Anyone who puts out figures three and four time what the facts will justify is in a pretty uncomfortable position," he said.
McKelvey, who won the Rockefeller award himself in 1973, said from his vacation site in Spokane, Wash., that Hubbert was "right on in his estimates of when we'd be getting into trouble," but had arrived at those estimates with questionable methods.
"He projected past human activity (oil production) into the future . . . The amount of oil in the ground is not a function of human activity. We disagreed then and I guess we still do," McKelvey said.
Hubbert retired from USGS last year but was preparing yesterday to leave for the Civil Service Executive Seminar at Kings Point, N.Y., where he is a visiting professor.
"We're moving into a completely new phase of history. The peak of oil production occured in 1970 and it won't happen but once. The human species never had to face these problems before so of course we're in a state of confusion."
The future will probably have to include both large scale nuclear power and vastly increased coal production, he said, but clearly his heart lies in another direction. He strode to a closet and returned with a tiny propeller attached to an array of solar electric cells. He put it down on the sunny floor and smiled contentedly as the propeller began to whir.