Halbouty, Michel Thomas (1909–2002)


By: Ron Bass

Type: Biography

Published: August 30, 2020

Updated: August 30, 2020


Michel Thomas Halbouty, wildcatter, geologist, petroleum industry leader, author, and philanthropist, was born on July 21, 1909, in Beaumont, Texas. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants Thomas Constantine Halbouty and Sodia (Monolley) Halbouty. Halbouty developed an early interest in geology. As a boy he toted ice water to roughnecks at the Spindletop oilfield. He attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (present-day Texas A&M University) and eventually graduated in 1931 with masters’ degrees in both geology and petroleum engineering. He later was the first recipient of A&M’s Professional Geological Engineering degree (1956) and a doctor of engineering degree from Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology (1966).

After graduating in 1931, armed with knowledge of the equipment and mechanics of oil drilling and production, Halbouty found a job on a survey crew for Yount-Lee Oil Company in Beaumont. Miles Frank Yount, the owner, instructed his foreman to drill for oil over a salt dome and then drill elsewhere if the drill test did not show oil. The test proved negative, but Halbouty suspected oil would be found at a greater depth. With the foreman ready to quit drilling, Halbouty, in muddy clothes, raced his jalopy fifty miles to Yount's mansion, where he interrupted a formal party honoring Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and showed Yount a rock sample from the drill test, betting his job that oil would be found deeper.Within six weeks of joining the crew, Halbouty was credited with discovery of the prolific High Island oilfield.

In 1935 Halbouty joined legendary wildcatter Glenn H. McCarthy as vice president of operations, chief geologist, and petroleum engineer. Author Jack Donahue, in his biography on Halbouty, described the relationship with McCarthy, known for his flamboyant lifestyle, as "King Kong and Godzilla agreeing to share the same apartment." In 1937 Halbouty opened his own business as a consulting geologist and petroleum engineer.

After the United States entry into World War II, Halbouty was called to active duty in 1942. Entering as a captain in the U. S. Army, he was assigned to the Battalion Commanders and Staff Officers course at the infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he graduated at the top of his class.He was promoted to the rank of major and served as an instructor in military science and tactics until he was transferred to Washington, D.C., in 1943 to serve on the Army–Navy Petroleum Board. With his oil industry background, Halbouty was assigned to head the board overseeing wartime oil production. He served until 1945 and ultimately achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

After the war, he returned to Houston and successfully operated as an independent oil producer. A legendary wildcatter, Halbouty drilled in at least twenty-six states and discovered more than fifty oil and natural gas fields, including numerous big producers in Texas. His many Texas discoveries included the South Boling Field (Wharton County), West Saratoga Field (Hardin County), and Pheasant Field (Matagorda County). With his first discovery (Ashland oilield) in Louisiana, by 1950 Halbouty and partners drilled twenty-nine wells with only two dry holes. In 1956 Halbouty drilled fourteen exploration wells, of which twelve were producers. In 1957 he founded Halbouty Alaska Oil Company (HALASKO) and became the first independent to explore in Alaska, where he discovered a natural gas field. Through the years his business survived hundreds of dry holes and at least two personal bankruptcies. At the time of his death at age ninety-five, Halbouty was still chasing deals including a project in West Texas.

Halbouty became known as one of the world’s leading geologists and petroleum engineers. He authored more than 400 articles on petroleum geology and engineering. Many of his scientific articles are required reading worldwide for geology and engineering students. He wrote four books, including Salt Domes: Gulf Region, United States and Mexico (1967), a definitive reference on drilling into salt domes, a common geologic structure on the Gulf Coast. He also wrote, with coauthor James Clark, Spindletop: The true story of the oil discovery that changed the world (1968).

In addition to his voluminous writing, Halbouty also lectured widely on oil industry issues and government policies. He vigorously expressed strong opinions, and his technical prowess paired with dynamic delivery often drew standing-room-only crowds. He was chosen as a distinguished lecturer for the Society of Petroleum Engineers of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers and was also a lecturer of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. His lectures took him across the U. S., to Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Africa. Halbouty became internationally-recognized and a confidant of world leaders. He chaired President Ronald Reagan’s Energy Policy Advisory Task Force and led his “Transition Team on Energy.” Halbouty golfed with former U.S. president George H.W. Bush and chaired his presidential library commission, convincing Bush to locate the library at Texas A&M University.

Throughout his career, Halbouty advocated energy independence for the United States. In 1960 he correctly predicted that an energy crisis due to excessive U. S. dependence on oil imports would occur within fifteen years. The Arab oil embargo occurred in 1973. He was critical of oil companies’ penchant for cheap imports over domestic production, but he also abhorred waste. As a particularly notable outcome of his public advocacy, he successfully championed a new state regulation requiring that each Texas oilfield be managed as an efficient unit, rather than letting individual leaseholders pump at will.

Halbouty was a member and leader of numerous scientific, engineering, and technical societies. He was elected president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) in 1966 and later helped establish the AAPG Foundation. In 1985 he was appointed scientific advisor to the Scientific Research Institute of Petroleum. Halbouty also had significant banking interests in Texas. He was a founding director of Continental Bank of Houston. He also chaired the boards of a number of banks throughout Texas.

Halbouty endowed scholarships and chairs at Texas A&M University, including the Michel T. Halbouty Chair in Geology. The Michel T. Halbouty Geosciences Building complex, which houses the Department of Geology and Geophysics on the A&M campus was named in his honor. He also served on the Texas A&M University Board of Regents.

As his reputation grew, he received many domestic and international honors, among them the 1975 AAPG’s Human Needs Award (which was later named for him), 1978 Horatio Alger Award, an honorary doctorate from the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences (1990, the first and only such award to a foreigner), and the Legendary Geoscientist Award from the American Geological Institute (2002). He received the highest awards from both the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers—the only earth scientist so honored by both societies.He was also elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Halbouty was married three times. He married Lesly Carlton in Fort Bend County in 1935. They later divorced. In 1945 he married Fay Byrd Renfro in Oklahoma. At the time of his death he was married to Billye Stevens Harper. Michel Thomas Halbouty died of pancreatic cancer in Houston on November 6, 2004. He was buried in Forest Park Cemetery in that city. He was survived by one son and two daughters.

James A. Clark, ed., Ahead of His Time: Michel T. Halbouty Speaks to the People (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1971). Jack Donahue, Wildcatter: The Story of Michel T. Halbouty and the Search for Oil (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1983). Jack Donahue, War Without End: Michel T. Halbouty’s Fight for American Energy Security (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1990). Houston Chronicle, November 7, 2004. “Michel T. Halbouty 1930,” Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets (https://corps.tamu.edu/michel-t-halbouty-30/), accessed July 24, 2020. New York Times, November 14, 2004.

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Business
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
  • Petroleum Engineers
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
  • Science
  • Geologists and Geophysicists
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Publications, Journals, and Magazines
  • Textbook and Educational Writers
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ron Bass, “Halbouty, Michel Thomas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/halbouty-michel-thomas.

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August 30, 2020
August 30, 2020

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