When you run a blog which focuses on skepticism and fact checking, you can occasionally discover that even a seemingly common, everyday, undisputed bit of science can have its detractors. About two months ago, two people who commented on my review of NatGeo’s dramatic what-if scenario about our future if all the oil in the world were to suddenly vanish, alerted me to the fact that the abiogenic oil hypothesis was still alive. Even after some five decades of research into the relevant geology and the chemistry of petroleum, there are those who think that oil isn’t a fossil fuel, but a byproduct of chemical interactions within the Earth’s mantle and thus, we shouldn’t be worried about peak oil because there’s always going to be a steady supply of it. According to them, far from playing chicken with the limit of petroleum we can extract, the planet’s innards are awash with the stuff. We just need to keep securing the areas where the oil will pool into vast, underground reservoirs.
Unfortunately for the theory’s supporters, the most cutting edge studies on the topic are products of the Soviet drive to secure oil supplies. After the end of WW2, it was thought that the USSR had paltry oil deposits and to figure out how to boost their reserves, the government decided to sponsor a scientific investigation into how petroleum actually forms in 1947. They had the first answer in 1951 from Nikolai A. Kudryavtsev (pronounced as it’s spelled, with an emphasis on the second syllable), a geologist who thought that oil couldn’t have come from organic materials because no lab has ever been able to replicate the process of zooplankton and algae decomposing into kerogen and eventually, petroleum. Since many deposits have been found in rocks which aren’t normally associated with active marine life, Kudryavtsev concluded that petroleum must be abiotic and come as a result of hydrocarbon formation deep within the Earth. The political members of the committee that reviewed his work didn’t raise the issue of whether a lab could even simulate the temperatures and pressure necessary to create petroleum from scratch in the lab, or question the time such an experiment would require and it if was even feasible, so his hypothesis was accepted as valid.
Over decades, a number of other geologists worked on Kudryavtsev’s ideas, refining them further and further, but the oil deposits being found in Russia at the time didn’t really support the abiogenic oil hypothesis. Rather than abandon conventional methods of exploration, the state oil company simply improved conventional ideas and found the fields the old fashioned way. At the same time, more in depth work on the chemistry of oil saw a clear link between living things and oil formation in the form of chemicals which were best explained by living marine organisms going about their day, dying, entering the carbon cycle, and eventually decomposing into a mix of organic compounds called kerogens, supporting the theory that marine shale is the origin of oil as we know it. The temperatures for all the required reactions during the process could be found in a kitchen without much effort, but the duration of the breakdown and metamorphosis makes synthesizing oil an experiment that simply couldn’t be carried out on human timescale. To give Kudryavtsev a synthetic drop of oil would’ve taken more time than our species has been around (which is just about 100,000 years or so), and this is why there was no laboratory simulation of petroleum formation in the 1950s or the 1960s.
At the same time, geologists were still trying to explain the origin of petroleum itself. This is in part why some scientists expressed interest in the abiogenic hypothesis all the way until the 1980s. That’s just how science works. When faced with a question, experts try to present and prove their solutions, and as experiments and observations mount, incorrect ideas are cast away and the best possible fit for the data is accepted as a new gold standard which subsequent theories would need to disprove while explaining the same exact data. The supposed dispute about the origin of oil doesn’t exist anymore and it will take a lot more than quotes from the past and throwing out lists of scientists to create a new debate. It would take a brand new theory which could account for all the biomarkers in petroleum and show even a single field which can’t be explained by either a subterranean fluid migration, or the commonly accepted geological process. So far, the abiogenic hypothesis has come up short in doing so and the firm scientific consensus on the subject is that oil is a fossil fuel.