Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • MICHEL T. HALBOUTY (1909-2004)



    MICHEL THOMAS HALBOUTY, a multifaceted American petroleum geologist and engineer, died November 6, 2004, of pancreatic cancer in Houston, Texas. He was 95.

    In his early career, he was known as “Houston’s Wildcatter.” In 1937 he started a formal consulting business in geology and petroleum engineering. His motto was “life is an adventure for those who have the guts to go for it.”

    He was born July 21, 1909, to Thomas Constantine and Sodia (née Monolley) Halbouty, who had immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the late 1890s and managed a grocery store in Beaumont, TX. As a teenager, Mike energetically toted ice water to workers in the Spindletop oilfield near his home, kindling his early interest in geology and the potent resource beneath the Earth’s surface.

    He attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) and earned bachelor’s (1930) and master’s (1931) degrees in both geology and petroleum engineering. As his career progressed, he became the first recipient of A&M’s Professional Geological Engineering degree (1956).

    As soon as he graduated from college, Mike found a job as surveyor for an oil company in Beaumont. Soon thereafter, the drilling encountered problems and the owner called it quits. Mike, though, kept pushing his idea of oil beneath the structure known as a “salt dome.” He went to his boss and bet his job declaring that oil would be found deeper at that location. Within six weeks of joining that drilling crew, he was credited with the discovery of the famous Texas High Island oilfield. He was 22 years old.

    That initial win encouraged him to take more chances. Although many would pay off, he declared bankruptcy three times. But that did not deter him, and he continued unabashedly to experiment and acquired a great reputation.

    In 1935 he joined wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, another consulting petroleum engineer, as vice president of operations, chief geologist, and petroleum engineer. Two years later he started his own consulting company.

    A member of the Army Reserve when the United States entered World War II, Halbouty was called to active duty in 1942. He became a captain in the Army, excelled at the infantry school at Georgia’s Fort Benning, and was promoted to the rank of major. Because of his technical knowledge, he was transferred to Washington, DC, to serve on the Army-Navy Petroleum Board until 1945.

    As peace returned, he went back to discovering more oil in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In 1957 he founded the Halbouty Alaska Oil Company (HALASKO), which discovered one of the state’s first gas fields. He was always an advocate of “energy independence,” and predicted in 1960 that within 15 years or so, an energy crisis would set in due to excessive US dependence on “foreign oil.” The 1973 OPEC oil embargo proved him right.

    He was a major supporter of scientific organizations, particularly the Geological Society of America and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He lectured widely at their annual meetings and supported their activities. He was also very generous with his alma matter (Texas A&M) and initiated many programs to advance its library and educational facilities. He endowed the Michel T. Halbouty Chair in Geology at Texas A&M University, established the Michel T. Halbouty Visiting Chair for the College of Geosciences, and, for more than 50 years, he provided two scholarships annually in both geology and petroleum engineering at A&M.

    He was unusually prolific, given his nonaca­demic career. He wrote 370 articles and four books, including a seminal work about drilling into subterranean salt domes. He was also selected by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) as a Distinguished Lecturer the following year and appeared before scientific groups throughout the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, The Hague, Tunisia, and Canada.

    Although I knew of him—from a distance, as he was a legend in the profession—I only befriended him when he came to Washington to assist President Ronald Reagan as a member of the President’s Transition Team. From what he saw of the bewildering bureaucracy at the Department of Energy, he mused, in jest, “I will recommend to President Reagan to just close the damned thing.” Instead, many of his suggestions helped to improve the flow of information both within the department and with the rest of the government.

    At the time he came to Washington, I was director of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Fascinated by how data from space can enhance understanding of the concentration of “oil pools” in the surface of the Earth, Mike often came to see what we do with space images of the Earth. Then he and I worked on a map to show the concentration of oil around the Mediterranean Sea region. Because he planned to use that map in his lecture, he opted to hire a National Geographic expert to draw the necessary graphics.

    We often had lunch together and dined with our wives in some fancy place. Whatever the setting, Mike never stopped trying to gain knowledge to advance his understanding of the Earth and its resources, with a focus on oil. He deserves the title of America’s Oil Man.

    Mike’s bold achievements earned him accolades. He received the Legendary Geoscientist Award, given by the American Geological Institute, in 2002. In addition to receiving the three highest awards bestowed by AAPG, he also received the highest honors conveyed by the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers. He was the only Earth scientist to have achieved the distinction of being so honored by these two scientific and professional societies. He was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and he received the Horatio Alger Award in 1978. In 1990, the USSR Academy of Sciences awarded him a doctorate in geoscience, making Halbouty the only non-Soviet scientist ever to be honored in this way. For the National Academies he served on the Energy Agenda for the 1990s Symposium Advisory Committee (1987–88) and on the Board on Earth Sciences (1982–88).

    Mike was married three times. He married Lesley Carlton on October 20, 1935. They divorced, and on June 22, 1945, he married Fay Renfro Kelly in Oklahoma. They divorced in 1980, when he was 71. When I knew him, he was with Billye Stevens Harper, who was beside him at the time of his death. She died August 21, 2015, in Houston. He is survived by his children Thomas E. Kelly (Cyd), Linda Faye Halbouty (Lonnie Revious), Joy Erfurdt, and Shyrrel Stevens; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.