Peak Oil Workhorse Matt Simmons: 1943-2010

This is a guest post by Steve Andrews and John Theobald. Sally Odland and Randy Udall also contributed. Andrews and Udall are retired co-founders of ASPO-USA. Odland and Theobald are formerly associated with ASPO-USA. The four of them currently are developing a new peak oil project.

“Petroleum is industrial oxygen,” Matt Simmons liked to say. The more he looked, the more convinced he was that much of our energy system was being red-lined, run on the ragged edge of disaster. And look he did—more than 50 hours a week by his own description. “Some people play golf,” Matt said. His hobby was looking at energy data. Often, he was alarmed, and sometimes—as with recent ill-advised comments about BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill—he could be alarmist. Readers of The Oil Drum know plenty about that, ( But no matter. The contribution he made was titantic, in every sense of the word.

Matt was arguably the most influential individual on this side of the Atlantic to warn about the coming peak-and-decline of world oil production. Beginning in 2001, when he published his ground-breaking white paper on the world’s giant oil fields, Matt alerted presidents, politicians and whoever else would listen that our energy joyride was headed for deep trouble. He drove himself tirelessly, riding the speaker circuit at breakneck speed, visiting some 25 countries to deliver over 400 fact-filled energy talks to industry, investment, academic and general interest audiences.

Then, suddenly, he was gone. Matt died Sunday evening, August 8th, at his home in Maine. He will be missed enormously by his wife Ellen, five daughters, his close associates, and all of us who knew and respected him. A service celebrating Matt’s life will be held in Houston on October 4 at noon in the Museum of Fine Arts (Caroline Wiess Law Building, Cullinan Hall, 1001 Bissonnet Street).

Matt was a contrarian thinker with high-level access and influence. The access was a product of his decades of stunning success in the energy investment banking business, where he made his fortune; the influence came from his research, timing, acumen and luck—and from swimming ahead of the crowd. Matt’s energy investment firm, Simmons & Co., Int’l., helped clients navigate through the oil industry’s historic down cycles. By the mid-1990s, with a high-profile column in World Oil magazine and a growing number of top-level media appearances, Matt began to leverage the reach of his ideas.

Matt’s viewpoints reached to the top of the political food chain. He co-chaired the energy task force of presidential candidate George W. Bush in October 2000. He helped Bill White get elected Mayor of Houston. He provided advice and primary support to the 2008 candidacy of Mitt Romney. But he didn’t always fit the profile of the Republican investment banker. Matt was known to brief staffers for Democratic candidates as well. In 2008, surprisingly, but perhaps not all that surprisingly, he announced his support for Barack Obama in the general election. Throughout the past decade, he would testify before several House and Senate committees, an experience he would compare to “shouting down a well.” More recently, he gave a one-hour presentation in the Pentagon auditorium that stretched another hour with intense questioning.

Matt did make it into the White House once. During a short session in the Oval Office with President Bush in early 2001, he shared his concerns about our emerging energy crisis. However, be it Democrat or Republican in power, he was never pleased with what passed for energy policy in Washington, and he never was co-opted by government. Indeed, one of his most widely rumored associations is a myth: Matthew Simmons never was a member of the 2001 National Energy Policy Development Group (a.k.a. “Cheney Energy Task Force”). One suspects he was too much of an independent to hang with that group.

A favorite Simmons comment was:

Do your analysis first; second, check it again; third, DON’T rely on a third party; then, if that’s what you conclude, go ahead and speak out with the courage of your convictions.

Not many people can live up to that standard. In 2003, Matt did by beginning to question the conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia could someday produce 15 or even 20 million barrels a day. This forced the Saudis to publicly defend their reserves and production capacity. In early 2004, at a symposium sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Saudi Aramco officials worked hard to rebut Matt’s claims that their oil fields were depleting faster than thought. The outreach effort included cover stories like that in the Oil & Gas Journal (April 5, 2004): “Saudi oil minister Al-Naimi sees kingdom sustaining oil supply linchpin role for decades.”

Of course, Matt wasn’t the only one speaking about peak oil. In 1998 Campbell and Laharrere had published a landmark piece in Scientific American, “The End of Cheap Oil.” A number of excellent books soon appeared, by scientists like Deffeyes and Goodstein, as well as generalists like Heinberg and Roberts. But Matt, along with other industry analysts like Charley Maxwell, Henry Groppe and Tom Petrie, helped bring peak oil to the boardroom and to Wall Street. He doggedly pushed the topic on cable news shows, buttressing peak oil’s intellectual and numeric underpinnings, reinforcing its respectability. In doing so, he helped animate a new generation of researchers whose findings would be published in books, magazines, and websites like

When Matt’s opus, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, appeared in May 2005, it was an instant sensation. Within Saudi Aramco, engineers fixated on a few of the book’s factual errors, thereby missing the big picture. On the world stage, however, the book brought a harsh dose of reality to the happy talk proffered by Cambridge Energy Research Associates and others. Daniel Yergin might remain a cheerleader for abundance, but no longer could it be assumed that Saudi Arabia’s “endless oil” could solve the world’s larger energy problems.

In response to Twilight’s assertions, Saudi Aramco mounted a PR campaign, claiming it could boost production to 12 million barrels a day and maintain that level for decades. Ironically, this knocked some stuffing out of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, whose annual forecasts often seemed like a vision in search of reality, particularly those which foresaw Saudi production reaching 20 million barrels per day by 2020.

Matt was flooded with speaking requests. His presentation style was always memorable: the phrase “drinking from a fire hose” borders on understatement. Passionate, animated, face flushed, words flowing, Matt commanded the podium, bombarding his listeners with facts, figures and original graphics that often connected established dots to make new points. His material was usually fresh, always insightful, often provocative. He brought a teacher’s mindset as much as a businessman’s to his talks and appearances. Periodically, he made outlandish statements. Though we admired his chutzpah, Matt’s 2006 bet with a New York Times columnist that oil prices would average $200 a barrel during 2010 struck us as ill-advised.

Throughout this period, several key threads flowed through Matt’s papers and presentations. One was his relentless plea for data transparency; the lack of reliable production numbers frustrated him no end. The most important “missing evidence” was depletion data from mature oil fields. Although drillers took depletion for granted—waged war against it incessantly in their own fields—they hated to talk about it in public. Matt lent his voice early and often on the need to obtain better data on decline rates, thus helping to spark the decline rate study that the International Energy Agency published in 2008. He also called attention to “rust,” the aging of energy infrastructure, and to the high-wire act that is deepwater drilling.

Apart from his book, Matt’s most insightful analyses derived from two early papers: “Revisiting Limits to Growth: Could the Club of Rome Have Been Right?” (October 2000), and “The World’s Giant Oilfields” (late 2001). In “Revisiting Limits,” Matt swam upstream against cornucopian groupthink, which held that resource limits would never constrain economic growth. When he reread the book, what he found surprised him.

In September 2000, Matt emailed us: “I have just finished the most important white paper I’ve tackled…I always thought this Club of Rome thing was some bad joke. But I am now of the opinion that historians will mark the book as perhaps the most important piece of ‘writing that got ignored’ in the last half of the 20th Century.” Seven years later, Matt hadn’t changed his mind about the value of the “Limits” study: “The world sleep-walked for three decades while believing all natural resources would last forever.”

The research that fully awakened Matt to the impact of oil field depletion, however, was his trail blazing “Giant Oilfields” paper. In early 2001, he had noted a worrisome fact: almost 30 years had elapsed since the discovery of the last super-giant oil field that could produce 1 million barrels a day. Then he dug into the numbers. The resulting paradigm-shifting paper pivoted on the recommendation that wraps up the quote below:

Traditionally, the definition of a giant or super-giant oilfield has been a field whose reserves exceed one billion barrels. Super giant fields are generally ones whose reserves exceed five or even ten billion barrels. This definition often gets ambiguous as the reserves for some fields get depicted as ‘total possible reserves’ or ‘oil in place’ while other fields’ reserves sizes adhere to the strict definition of ‘proven ‘ and ‘recoverable reserves.’ Perhaps it is time for the energy world to change this reserve focus and begin defining giant oilfields in terms of their daily production. This yardstick can be accurately measured unlike total reserves, which are always estimates. [our emphasis]

Although he was forced to guesstimate production for some fields, the paper highlighted how critically important giant fields are to world production; the largest 3% of fields produce 47% of the world’s daily supply, as shown in the graphic below:

Pair Matt’s “Giant Oil Fields” of nine years ago with Chris Skrebowski’s current research on future megafield development and you have all you should need to convince alert scientists and astute businessmen that it would be wise to start planning for a pending peak in oil production. Matt’s key observation from the study:

Most of the world’s true giant oil fields were found decades ago…The last four oilfields found with a productive capacity that exceeded one million barrels a day were China’s Daquing field (1959), Western Siberia’s Samotlor (1965), Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay (1968) and Mexico’s Cantarell (1976). After Cantarell, no new field has come close to this one million barrels a day production level…Not a single oilfield found in the [1990s] produces more than 200,000 barrels a day. Only three oilfields discovered in the decade of the 1980s still produce over 200,000 barrels a day….[This] was a big surprise to me. I would have guessed intuitively that the number would be far higher.

Lessons learned from this lengthy effort? He cited five additional surprises:

My biggest surprises of this study were first, how difficult it was to even obtain data on current production rates. Second, how critically important this relatively small population of oilfields still is to the world’s total oil supply. Third, how old many of these fields are, particularly the largest of these fields. Fourth the total lack of good data on the decline rates for almost all of these giant fields. My last surprise was the consistently small size of each new generation of giant fields.

Matt’s summary slide (below) started showing up in presentations in early 2002. In fact, he later acknowledged that his giant oilfield study was the critical work in moving him to understand and embrace the long-term peak oil reality.

Full of surprises but perpetually surprised himself, Matt treated peak oil more like a journey of self-discovery than like a bell curve or a set of charts. It’s impossible to think of how this issue developed over the past decade without thinking of Matt, and we enjoyed and learned from being along for the ride.

Personally, the man was full of surprises, too. He was a water color artist, who produced his own Christmas cards. He loved to play the marimba. His presentations were sometimes delivered via live webcast so that he could attend a daughter’s graduation or important family event. He liked to cook for his family to relax after a hard day. He and Ellen revived the historic Strand Theatre in his adopted Maine hometown of Rockland—one of the many “pay it forward” endeavors that will be the legacy of this remarkable man. We are among the many, many people who will miss Matthew R. Simmons and remember him fondly.

Thanks for this very interesting summary!

Matt made a lot of contributions over the years. It is easy for newer readers to miss his early work.

The world's giant oil fields, January 2002

I just love looking at the dates of papers on the issue Peak Oil prior to 2000 when if you mentioned this issue they would look at you as though you lived on the Moon. And these were people who should have understood better the issues involved, petroleum engineers !!!

For me it was

which rang the bell and it was right on target.

The Youngquist book lead me to dieoff which rang the bell for me, also..... then discovering that the oil infra-structure was rusting away was the confirmation!

I watched "A Crude Awakening" again the other night (just for kicks! ;)), where Matt features along with others. It's the film, quite by accident, that got me thinking about our finite world and limits to growth (Al Bartlett finally pushed me off the fence).

As an Average Joe, still living in mainstream, surrounded by folk mostly dismissive of such "notions", I'm still not sure if it's such a good thing to be "aware". Damn the Matrix!

Regards, Aussie Dad of three great kids

I have followed news re his work developing off shore wind in the Gulf of Maine for some time. Also news re the impressive pumped storage facility planned for the Maine Yankee site in Wiscassett (five 1000 foot vertical shafts leading to 5 200X1000ft excavated caverns being planned - not sure if it will happen or not but test drilling & permitting are underway). His life's work and impact upon society will live on.

Rest In Peace, and God Bless, Matt Simmons. He will be missed.

i feel sad. i had just told a PO newbie i'd have to rate him no. 1...about a month ago.

Amen, few men have the courage and integrity Matt did.

The contribution he made was titantic, in every sense of the word.

Uh . . . that is an odd choice of words. A back-handed complement? He made really big high-profile contributions but they sank to the bottom of the ocean when put the test?

Definition: titanic - of enormous size, strength, power, etc.; gigantic.

The lower case use of the word has nothing whatsoever to do with the Titanic ship and its sinking. It is simply an adjective.

I stand corrected. Thanks.

Matt Simmons was a Peak Oil activist inside the stifling conformist world of Big Energy.
To many folks, he was the star of the Peak Oil Movement. He will be sorely missed.

The contribution he made was titan*t*ic

A typo....

The drama is that the public has not recognised that Simmons' 2005 prediction of the "coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy" actually materialized mid 2008 when Saudi Arabia could not pump enough oil to meet demand from China for the Olympic games.

For those who haven't read it yet:

Saudi Arabia lost production share to Russia

Saudi Aramco's crude oil exports peaked in 2005

Saudi King ordered oil exploration to cease. But will it matter?

I hope there are more oil industry insiders like Mr. Simmons who are willing to speak out in his absence.

I enjoyed reading some of Matt's contributions unknown to me. I am a fool, so I can speak out. To prove I am a fool, I will speak out. Matt may have been ill-advised about his BP comments, but he may have been correct. Survey reports accessed from Chris Martenson's blog of 8/10 show that BP's video and plug work are in the location of another well, not the leaking one. It took courage for Matt to say so. It took courage for the surveyor to research and publish it. I don't need courage. I am no one but a fool. More proof? Who will even look up my reference? I am not heard, so I can say what I like.

Chris Martenson's blog of 8/10 show that BP's video and plug work are in the location of another well, not the leaking one.

Are you trying to say there is still a well leaking oil in the GOM???
Where is it? Sounds like another conspiracy theory.

Jim Kunstler is sticking to the idea that Matt may have been onto something that BP and the US government wanted/still want to keep quiet about.

From Jim's blog site:

BP Oil Spill Leaves a 22-Mile Plume Migrating in Gulf of Mexico


I am with Kunstler on this. I recently saw these same reports mentioned in Kunstler's blog and wonder if perhaps there might be a lot more we don't know. I am certain of only one thing at this point: someone is lying, and given the history of all the principals in this case, I doubt that it was Matthew Simmons. If he was fed incorrect information, how much would he have had to trust his source to be willing to risk his reputation in this way? I don't know about anyone else's impressions, but the last images I saw of his face struck me as very stressed, very tired, and possibly ill. I think this whole episode did effectively kill him, in that it literally worried him to death.

The seriousness of the environmental damage is sometimes being overlooked here in favour of technical details. Look at this latest report "Scientists Disagree with Government: 79% of Oil Still There" - The Daily Hurricane -
Plus, there is plenty of evidence that BP has greatly reduced its liability by resorting to the an over-zealous and somewhat clandestine use of the dispersant in favour of actual cleanup (see, for example "Corexit Is Being Sprayed at Night, Even Now (According to BP Vessel of Opportunity Workers and Others)" source: They opted for a strategy that allowed the company to survive - in spite of public Mea Culpas - and for a whole host of complex reasons (I am assuming here) the US administration feels compelled to put a good face on the way it has all turned out. But does any of you really think there were no lies? Get real. The fact that the lies might be more about saving money and "face" as well as about personal, political, and economic survival makes them rather more venal than actively evil. It is venal when moral creatures get their souls twisted inside out for practical reasons - it destroys a man's honour.

And if any of you think the heart of a human being can survive the loss of honour - even if only inwardly visible - then I would be surprised at you. Surely we all know that honour is at the heart of happiness. What survives might look and walk and talk like that same person, but the person who was once there is gone forever. Such people, unless they are psychopaths, will never know another moment's honest self esteem. Frankly, I think we might be seeing a lot of suicides over the next few decades that ultimately trace back to this eventful spring and summer.

And Matthew Simmons, whatever ailed him, had honour to his soul's fullest brim. He is not to be pitied in this sordid mess, only honoured and mourned.

regards, Helga

PS: I am still as confused as anyone by Simmons insistence on an "oil lake" as it would have floated and what he actually said does not square with anything else reported... but I keep wondering if he was told about the big oil "plume" caused by the mix with the dispersant by someone who described it as if it WERE a thick lake - would he have figured this was even possible - the volume alone makes it seem a bit farfetched and surely everyone can do the math and figure that out immediately? On the other hand, he was usually so careful, and checked everything so thoroughly, I just wonder if there might not be another explanation: maybe the oil is not yet actually IN the water, maybe it is assembling in the underlying sediments, coming up through fractures in the rock formations there, like a dome of tar sand. Oil mixed with sand is a hell of a heavy and yucky mess, take it from me (I live in Alberta and have seen the "tar-sands" up north) and it will stay just under the surface even under a lake if conditions are cold enough. The stuff has been leaking into streams and rivers up here forever, by the way - that is not just an effect of the mining at Fort McMurray and McLeod - they just make it worse.

Helga, here's a link to an article that summarizes the latest scientific team's results studying this problem:

"Most BP Oil Still Pollutes the Gulf, Scientists Conclude
Breakdown is proving slower than expected"

I think it's becoming quite obvious who between Matt Simmons and the BP-US government coalition was/is telling the gulf oil spill story mostly correct, and it isn't the team with the most to lose by telling it correctly.

Here's an interesting line: "Oil that has resisted dispersion and evaporation likely will “remain potentially harmful for decades,” MacDonald said at the congressional hearing, adding: “I expect the hydrocarbon imprint of the BP discharge will be detectable in the marine environment for the rest of my life.” "

I first heard him online at the CSIS energy seminar back in 2001-2(ish) made a big impression on me

edit 2004

Wireline: I dare you to look it up. It is no theory. It is a surveyor's report. You could understand it if you made the effort.

i'm surprised that more TOD readers haven't commented. for the newbies, matt simmons was a giant. it's one thing for some unknown to stand on a soapbox and shout out the truth. in general, no one, unfortunately, pays attention to these people. but matt simmons sounded the alarm loud and clear for a long time. he addressed his friends and business associates who didn't particularly want to hear it. he clearly jeopardized his position in the oil industry, and his financial well-being to do this.

in the end, the company that he founded turned their backs on him. who among you would make such a sacrifice? matt soldered on, unwavering in his determination to get the peak oil word out. to say that his presence will be missed is a classic understatement.

Steverino: I agree, and more. Matt knew enough to protect himself and his own family. He risked his career, reputation, and health for us and our families. His family asked that in lieu of flowers, to send a donation to his Ocean Energy Institute. We should at least research the OEI and see if we think it is worthy of our support. I'm sure his family would appreciate our looking into it.

Irrespective of what Matt was saying near the end of his cut-short life (about the BP well and seepage), his life should not be judged by any one small act. He was a giant. And he should be honored as such. His contribution to Peak Oil awareness was immense and should not be swept under the rug. Time will tell how close to the true truth he was with his work on Twilight in the Desert.

Matt went before he could see "The Promised Land".

However, given that the promised land is a dried out desert, and an energy depleted future, that may not have been the worst of things to not see in one's lifetime.

Anyone know how he died?

RIP Matt. I'm sorry I could never tell you in person how great your book was.

It was a heart attack

I harvested 3 bushels of potatoes from my ever expanding garden to store with my 3 bushels of onions. My 3.45 kwh pole mounted solar array will be installed in the next 2 weeks. I have a new high efficient gas furnace, better windows, and extra insulation in my house. I work in the energy efficiency business. Did Matt Simmons have a large influence on my life? Do the Saudis lie about their oil reserves?

I thank Matt and all the other vocal peak oilers for making me aware of what is coming. When you filter all of the economic and global news through the lens of peak oil it all makes pefect sense. I will miss him but I will never forget him.

goinggreen: The coroner's report said he died by "accidental drowning with heart disease as a contributing factor," according to the "Bangor Daily News".

A modest additional comment:

A telephone call to Matt's office receptionist back in 2005 yielded the great honor of a return call! Talking about "Plan B" requisites was on Matt's mind, and he wanted to explore options. As newbies can see, "tahoevalleylines" has been encouraged by Matthew Simmons to discuss US railway expansion and local service extension to maintain Societal & Commercial Cohesion.

Matthew Simmons said he feared railway was a passe' element in the US political establishment, but keep the info coming. We shall. May the Simmons family rest easy knowing dad was a man to match mountains.