Abiogenic Oil

Hoystory poses a thought-provoking question with potentially dramatic consequences for the concept of “peak oil”:

What if “fossil fuels” weren’t made of fossils at all? What if the earth naturally made petroleum? What if gasoline was a renewable resource?

Imagine the howls from the environmentalist left if there was no such thing as “peak oil.”

In answer of the questions, Hoystory points to the following:

Lost in the big news last week — the race for the Democratic nomination, the reeling U.S. economy, the ongoing life/death saga that is “Dancing with the Stars” — came word that a new deep-water exploration area off the coast of Brazil could contain as much as 33 billion barrels of oil. How much is that? If estimates are accurate, the Brazilian find would amount to the world’s third-largest oil reserve. In comparison, the U.S. has proven oil reserves of 21.8 billion barrels.

What makes the Brazil find interesting is really the gold; not as in “black gold,” but as in Thomas Gold:

The Austrian-born astrophysicist, who died in 2004, was a renowned maverick in the science community, a brilliant rogue whose anti-establishment proclamations were often proven right. For instance, in the 1960s, as NASA began its assault on the moon, many scientists debated whether the moon’s surface was comprised of hard rock or might in fact be a layer of dust so thick that, upon touchdown, the Apollo lunar modules would sink out of sight. Gold, studying evidence from microimpacts, moon cratering, electrostatic fields, and more, boldly predicted that the astronauts’ boots would sink into the lunar regolith no more than three centimeters. And, give or take a centimeter or so, he was proven right.

What does Gold have to do with the recent Brazil oil find? In 1999, Gold published “The Deep Hot Biosphere,” a paper that postulated that coal and oil are produced not by the decomposition of organic materials, but in fact are “abiogenic” — the product of tectonic forces; i.e., deeply embedded hydrocarbons being brought up and through the earth’s mantle and transformed into their present states by bacteria living in the earth’s crust.

The majority of the world’s scientists scoff at Gold’s theory, and “fossil fuel” remains the accepted descriptor of oil. Yet in recent years Russia has quietly become the world’s top producer of oil, in part by drilling wells as deep as 40,000 feet — far below the graveyards of T-Rex and his Mesozoic buddies.

Is it possible that Thomas Gold was right again, and that the earth is actually still producing oil? It’s tantalizing to think so.

(emphasis added; more on Thomas Gold here.) If Gold was right and oil is abiogenically produced, then the fears of “peak oil” are premature at best. Of course, that assumes that the world does not consume the oil faster than the earth can produce it or that, alternatively, we don’t learn how to create artificially. But according to Gold’s theory, there is a staggering amount of oil to be discovered beneath the Earth’s crust, much more than we could rapidly consume. The following is from an interview Gold did with Wired Magazine (edited for clarity):

WIRED: How much more oil is there in your view of the world than in the view of traditional petroleum geology?

GOLD: Oh, a few hundred times more.

WIRED: But not all of it is accessible at the moment?

GOLD: It becomes accessible by recharging, and the recharging process I think I completely understand. There’s a stepwise approximation of the pore pressure to the rock pressure - that will always be the case if the stuff is coming up from below. You will not just fill up one reservoir at the top in the shallow levels. It will always be underlaid by another reservoir, and that in turn by another, and so on for a long way down.

WIRED: And by pumping out oil from the highest reservoir you release the pressure on the lower ones, allowing more oil to seep up.

GOLD: Yes, the partial seal between the surface reservoir and the one below in some cases appears to break open violently.

The most obvious evidence that Gold’s theory may be correct is that Russia seems to have reaped huge rewards by adhering to it. Hoystory specifically noted this part of the Brazil story:

Yet in recent years Russia has quietly become the world’s top producer of oil, in part by drilling wells as deep as 40,000 feet — far below the graveyards of T-Rex and his Mesozoic buddies.

In his interview, Gold explained why Russia would have set its compass to the abiogenic star of oil production:

WIRED: Were there precedents for your idea that deep hydrocarbons are a normal fact of planetary geology?

GOLD: In the ’60s, Sir Robert Robinson [a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of Britain's Royal Society] said that petroleum looks like a primordial hydrocarbon to which biological products have been added.

WIRED: And what was the response?

GOLD: The response was that I quoted his remark in many of my papers. But the profession of petroleum geology did not pick it up. Mendeleyev [the Russian chemist who developed the periodic table] in the 1870s had said much the same thing, but Robinson had done a more modern analysis of oil and had come to the same conclusion. And, in fact, the Russians have in the last 20 years done an even more precise analysis that completely proves the point. The fact that Mendeleyev was in favor of a primordial origin of petroleum had a great effect - you see, to most Russians, Mendeleyev was the greatest scientist that Russia ever had.

So I guess, in reality, it isn’t Gold’s theory at all, but one posited by a Russian scientist from the late 1800’s, and one that was echoed by the founder of Britain’s national academy of science. Yet somehow the term “fossil fuels” has become fixed, and the concept that oil comes from the decay of death rather than the regeneration of life is treated as gospel. The consensus must have been against them …

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6 Responses to “Abiogenic Oil”

  1. on 21 Apr 2008 at 6:08 pm Larry

    I can believe this, but it requires a ready supply of oil’s component chemicals - H, C, etc. It’s possible that even if oil is abiogenic, the inner earth has now exhausted its supply of one or more of them. If so, even if we find deeper reservoirs, the factory may have closed down. Reopening it would require new injections of raw materials.

  2. on 21 Apr 2008 at 10:36 pm MichaelW

    The whole theory (if I understand it correctly) is based on the fact that the abundance of H, C, etc. is never depleted (matter neither destroyed or created, and all), and thus the supply of oil is constantly regenerating.  It simply waits for extraction to create space for new reserves.

    That being said, you’re right that depletion of the core elements is a concern, even if there are 100 times as much oil as we think there is now.  But the idea that we’ll deplete that oil within our lifetimes (or those of our great grandchildren) relies on many more assumptions than the theory that oil is abiogenically generated.


  3. on 22 Apr 2008 at 10:45 am ChrisB

    Yet in recent years Russia has quietly become the world’s top producer of oil, in part by drilling wells as deep as 40,000 feet — far below the graveyards of T-Rex and his Mesozoic buddies.

    Oil isn’t made from dinosaur bones so this reasoning is pretty irrelevant.

  4. on 22 Apr 2008 at 2:23 pm ChrisB

    Additionally there’s very little evidence for abiogenic oil, while there is a great deal for biogenic. I’m also surprised anyone could say coal is abiogenic when coal rocks are filled with plant and more specifically fern fossils.

  5. on 01 May 2008 at 8:47 am Chris

    Chris said on HoyStory:  “Abiogenic oil is not taken very seriously by the scientific community.”  Maybe so.
    This is the trouble with scientists, and the primary reason why we have engineers.  http://magazine.mst.edu/2006/09/prime_slime_umr_has_big_plans.html
    Within a decade or so, we’re going to be growing our own crude oil.  Courtesy of engineers, not scientists!

  6. [...] In 1914, the US Bureau of Mines predicted that the world’s supply of oil would run out in ten years. In 1951 the US Interior Department predicted the wells would run dry in 13 years. In 1972, the Club of Rome predicted that the world would run out of oil in 1992 and natural gas in 1993. All the while the Saudis keep investing billions to keep finding more dinosaur cemeteries. Funny this is they’re doing a good job. A new field, Khurais, has 27 billion barrels and will take 50 years to deplete, unless of course you simply believe the Saudis are lying. And the Brazilians, too. There can’t be that much oil, right? I guess. [...]

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