rethinking petroleum a little too hard…

May 10, 2010

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.

See: Glasby, G. (2006). Abiogenic Origin of Hydrocarbons: An Historical Overview Resource Geology, 56 (1), 83-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-3928.2006.tb00271.x, complete paper via pdf.

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  • Ron Maimon

    While Kudryatsev didn’t give the precise mechanism of hydrocarbon production in the mantle, Thomas Gold did— he showed that if you put methane under pressure you produce hydrocarbons naturally. He did this experimentally, producing short-chain hydrocarbons. He also explained how successive oxidation as the oil bubbles up produces longer and longer chains.

    It is manifestly ridiculous to argue with the abiotic oil hypothesis, after Gold’s book “The Deep Hot Biosphere”, it is clear that oil is abiogenic, and we will never run out. We will cook ourselves in our own emissions first.

    The proof of abiogenic oil, which cannot be refuted, is the large quantity of Helium in hydrocarbon reserves. Most of the world’s He is extracted from oil fields, and there is no way He can be chemically concentrated by life, or in sedimentary layers. He is produced by radioactive decay deep inside the Earth, and it must contaminate the hydrocarbons when it is methane fluid at immense pressure down below. There is no other way to explain the He. This is what convinced Gold that oil is abiotic.

    His subsequent investigations include drilling in porous bedrock surrounded by _absolutely no significant sediments_ to find 80 bbl of oil and lots of organic goop. The oil was not significant commercially, but it is of immense scientific importance, becuase the drilling was in Sweden in a region with absolutely no chance of hydrocarbon contamination from any fossils.

    The results of the dig not only showed that oil is produced deep down (the oil was 6km down, and there were only a few feet of sediment on the surface or in the surrounding regions for many miles around). The result also confirmed Gold’s belief that life was active at this depth, out of contact with any atmospheric oxygen. Gold cultured two new strains of thermophillic bacteria unknown to science from the goop, and the goop itself was microscopic nuggets of magnetic iron, something which he showed was a plausible bacterial excretion, if the bacteria extracted oxygen from rocks.

    Gold also shows that the metal content of oil is inexplicable in the biogenic view, the segregation of oil to light-oil at the bottom, heavy oil higher up, and coal at the tippy-top is also ridiculous in the biogenic view. The abiogenic view explains this by successive carbon oxidation as the oil migrates up.

    Gold successfully produced short-chain hydrocarbons from methane under 600 Atm pressure and temperatures appropriate to the mantle. He shows that it is thermodynamically likely that the mantle cooks methane into light oil, and that the crust then removes hydrogen through oxidation to produce all the worlds hydrocarbon and coal reserves. The chemical markers in oil are due to deep-Earth bacteria. The coal has fossils simply because the carbon replaces rock under immense pressure from below, and leaves the fossils intact as it replaces the rock. This explains the fossil pattern in coal a billion times better than the stupid biogenic theory.

    How any person even remotely familiar with the issues could believe the biogenic theory today is beyond my powers to understand. Oil is obviously abiogenic, as there is no process to convert plants, which are mostly sugar (carbohydrates) into oil which is hydrocarbons. Where does all the oxygen go? How can you remove oxygen from plant matter? What about the nitrogen? The theory is ludicrous today, one cannot do anything but laugh at it.

    I hope one can respect the memory of Gold and make honest description of his theory. I am not a global warming skeptic, and I do not work for an oil company. I would love for oil to be biogenic, so that we would run out and we won’t cook ourselves in our emissions. But it’s not, so we won’t, and we might, unless we wake up.

  • Greg Fish

    It is manifestly ridiculous to argue with the abiotic oil hypothesis, after Gold’s book…

    Let me stop you right there. You cannot simply declare that it’s ridiculous to argue with an idea after your favorite proponent of it writes a book. Science is all about debate. Shut off the debate and you don’t have science, you have dogma.

    The proof of abiogenic oil, which cannot be refuted, is the large quantity of Helium in hydrocarbon reserves…

    Well, the paper referenced for this post provides a process by which helium can soak into hydrocarbon reserves and considering that Gold found life forms in his samples, I’m not sure how you can simply claim that helium definitely proves that petroleum is abiogenic and that’s that, case closed, no more discussion, everyone shut it.

    The oil was not significant commercially, but it is of immense scientific importance, becuase the drilling was in Sweden in a region with absolutely no chance of hydrocarbon contamination from any fossils.

    I think you’re taking the term fossil fuel way too literally. Gold retrieved a pittance which could’ve very easily drifted there and his subsequent attempts to find more oil proved fruitless. Even if he found a few dozen barrels nearby and another dozen a few miles further still, we’d have something more there. Otherwise we just have a slight anomaly that hardly upends anything. And again, his samples were likely contaminated because at the depth where he was drilling, life forms similar to the ones he found should not be able to exist. It would be too hot for them.

    The result also confirmed Gold’s belief that life was active at this depth, out of contact with any atmospheric oxygen.

    That’s known as confirmation bias. We’ve drilled a lot farther than Gold did in many, many boreholes but do not have the same results as he did.

    Gold cultured two new strains of thermophillic bacteria unknown to science from the goop…

    And after much controversy, he declared the whole experiment a disaster because what he found was a) not replicated by earlier prospecting, and b) more than likely contaminated by a poor choice in lubrication.

    Gold also shows that the metal content of oil is inexplicable in the biogenic view…

    … in another example of a finding that has not been replicated by anyone else. We drill for oil all the time. Oil is tested all the time. We know what it’s made of and there’s a reason why Gold’s ideas aren’t mainstream. He wrote his ideas in a book and none of them were replicated by companies who would dearly love for petroleum to be abiogenic.

    The coal has fossils simply because the carbon replaces rock under immense pressure from below, and leaves the fossils intact as it replaces the rock. This explains the fossil pattern in coal a billion times better than the stupid biogenic theory.

    Material replacing other material under immense pressures wouldn’t damage fossils? How? Fossils are mostly rock as well so they should’ve also been replaced. Far from explaining anything, this is basically saying that we should not have any fossil records in coal, all of them should be destroyed.

    How any person even remotely familiar with the issues could believe the biogenic theory today is beyond my powers to understand.

    Your inability to understand something doesn’t render it impossible. Replace “biogenic theory” with “evolution” or “state propaganda that we are not being controlled by alien reptoids” and you’ll get a preview of my weekly critic e-mails…

    Oil is obviously abiogenic, as there is no process to convert plants, which are mostly sugar (carbohydrates) into oil which is hydrocarbons.

    I can tell you didn’t read the post all that closely since it points out that marine organisms like plankton turn into oil. Plants turn into coal and there’s plenty of oxygen in coal. Not knowing the kind of chemistry you can look up on Wikipedia in your spare time does not make your argument any better, nor does it prove anything Gold claimed.

    I hope one can respect the memory of Gold and make honest description of his theory

    Sounds like you’d be more interested in a hagiography…

  • Ron Maimon

    Yes, I am only interested in hagiography, and shutting up idiots like you. There is no scientific debate, the points you bring up are airheaded and deserve no answer.