Peak Oil News: Abiotic Theory of Oil Formation

Monday, August 16, 2004

Abiotic Theory of Oil Formation

The Environmental Literacy Council

There is an alternative theory about the formation of oil and gas deposits that could change estimates of potential future oil reserves. According to this theory, oil is not a fossil fuel at all, but was formed deep in the Earth's crust from inorganic materials. The theory was first proposed in the 1950s by Russian and Ukranian scientists. Based on the theory, successful exploratory drilling has been undertaken in the Caspian Sea region, Western Siberia, and the Dneiper-Donets Basin.

The prevailing explanation for the formation of oil and gas deposits is that they are the remains of plant and animal life that died millions of years ago and were compressed by heat and pressure over millions of years. Russian and Ukranian geologists argue that formation of oil deposits requires the high pressures only found in the deep mantle and that the hydrocarbon contents in sediments do not exhibit sufficient organic material to supply the enormous amounts of petroleum found in supergiant oil fields.

The abyssal, abiotic theory of oil formation has received more attention in the West recently because of the work of retired Cornell astronomy professor Thomas Gold, who is known for development of several theories that were initially dismissed, but eventually proven true, including the existence of neutron stars. He has also been wrong, however; he was a proponent of the "steady state" theory of the universe, which has since been discarded for the "Big Bang" theory. Gold's theory of oil formation, which he expounded recently in a book entitled The Deep Hot Biosphere, is that hydrogen and carbon, under high temperatures and pressures found in the mantle during the formation of the Earth, form hydrocarbon molecules which have gradually leaked up to the surface through cracks in rocks. The organic materials which are found in petroleum deposits are easily explained by the metabolism of bacteria which have been found in extreme environments similar to Earth's mantle. These hyperthermophiles, or bacteria which thrive in extreme environments, have been found in hydrothermal vents, at the bottom of volcanoes, and in places where scientists formerly believed life was not possible. Gold argues that the mantle contains vast numbers of these bacteria.

The abiogenic origin of petroleum deposits would explain some phenomena that are not currently understood, such as why petroleum deposits almost always contain biologically inert helium. Based on his theory, Gold persuaded the Swedish State Power Board to drill for oil in a rock that had been fractured by an ancient meteorite. It was a good test of his theory because the rock was not sedimentary and would not contain remains of plant or marine life. The drilling was successful, although not enough oil was found to make the field commercially viable. The abiotic theory, if true, could affect estimates of how much oil remains in the Earth's crust.

The abiogenic origin theory of oil formation is rejected by most geologists, who argue that the composition of hydrocarbons found in commercial oil fields have a low content of 13C isotopes, similar to that found in marine and terrestrial plants; whereas hydrocarbons from abiotic origins such as methane have a higher content of 13C isotopes. In an April 2002 letter published in the science journal Nature, Barbara Sherwood Lollar and her colleagues from the Stable Isotope Lab at the University of Toronto reported their analysis of the Kidd Creek mine in Ontario. An unusual ratio of 13C isotopes and the presence of helium provided evidence of hydrocarbons with abiotic origins, but they argued that commercial gas reservoirs do not contain large amounts of hydrocarbons with a similar signature. Gold and other geologists who argue that there are significant amounts of oil from abiotic origins maintain that as oil seeps up through the layers of Earth closer to the surface, it mixes with oil from biological origins, and takes on its characteristics.


At 10:36 PM, August 24, 2004, Blogger WHT said...

Gold died recently. Probably the theory with him.

At 3:06 PM, May 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that explain why earths magnetic field is diminishing ( 10 % in the last 150 years) and that it will be gone in few hundret years killing all if drilling is not stopped

At 4:52 PM, November 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Fallacy of Abiotic Oil

There is currently a mild debate between the biological origin of petroleum and geologic or abiotic origins of petroleum. The accepted, mainstream idea that petroleum resulting from the pressurized decay of biological material over the last 250 million years has resulted in the discovery and extraction of nearly a trillion barrels of oil over the last 150 years. The contrarian’s abiotic theory that oil has its origins from geologic processes happening deep within the earth, has resulted in the drilling of one very deep dry hole in Sweden plus the extraction of the same trillion barrels that the abiotic theorists say came from geological processes. Peak Oil is the theory proposed by M. King Hubbert in 1956 that the rate of oil extraction in a finite province will follow a bell-shaped curve, growing to a peak followed by somewhat a symmetric decline

In mathematics, one can prove or disprove certain theorems by throwing out an assumption and following its implications to their logical conclusion and see what falls out. In using this logical process, I hope to demonstrate that Peak Oil is not only supported equally well by the theory of biological origins and abiotic origins but will happen sooner under the theory of abiotic origins of petroleum.

Now, let’s establish some assumptions that we can all agree on:

Assumption I. Under either abiotic or biological origins, it takes a long time to produce oil so let’s assume that in 1850, when the oil industry began, there was approximately 2 Trillion barrels of oil in the ground between 7,000 and 15,000 feet deep where successful oil drilling normally occurs.

Assumption II. At some point in the distant past, no petroleum existed on the earth. In the case of biological origins, this Zero Point was around 250 million years ago when the plants and dinosaurs began to flourish and provide the biological material for the oil. In the case of abiotic origins, the zero point was about 4 billion years ago when the earth cooled and the geologic processes began that would eventually bring us to the point where we are now.

The two assumptions above would seem to be agreeable to both camps. The actual zero point for either one could be adjusted by a few hundred million years but whatever the assumed zero point would be, they would remain in the same neighborhood.

In a dynamic fluid system such as the petroleum system, there is a production rate and an extraction rate. Over the last 150 years, the extraction rate has followed a reasonably linear path from 0 to 80 million barrels per day. This would seem to imply the need for some difficult mathematics but let’s move on to Assumption III and see it that is required.

Assumption III. The Production Rate for both Abiotic and Biologic have been relatively constant from the Zero Point to 1850 was constant and has continued to the present. In the case of Biologic Origins, this is probably not a valid assumption but for the purposes of this discussion and the time frames involved, it can hold. In the case of Abiotic Origins, the conditions for production have existed on a geologic time scale and can be assumed to have been steady state for most of the 4 billion years.

Now, let’s compute those production rates.

Biologic Origins:

Production Rate = Barrels in 1850/Time of Production

2,000,000,000,000 barrels divided by 250,000,000 years
= 8.000 barrels/year

So, the rate of production for Biologic Origins is about 8,000 barrels a year. Now let’s look at Abiotic Origins.

2,000,000,000,000 barrels divided by 4,000,000,000 years
= 500 barrels/year

Those are interesting numbers. Today, the world extracted 80, 000, 000 barrels of oil. That is 10,000 years of oil at the Biologic Production Rate but it is 160,000 years at the Abiotic Production Rate.

So, if the first three assumptions were correct, the theory of abiotic origins would predict a peak in oil production sooner than the theory of biologic origins. Interesting.

But wait, the proponents of the theory of abiotic origins say we will never reach a peak and there will be enough oil to last forever. Ok, so let’s work with that. We will keep the first three assumptions but now add a fourth based on the claim by the Abiotic camp.

Assumption IV. The rate of production of Petroleum from Abiotic Origins is 80,000,000 barrels/day. Their claim is that we will never run out so since the production rate has been constant for a long time we can assume that the earth has been producing oil at this constant rate for about 4 billion years. Let’s do that math and find out how much oil the earth has produced.

80,000,000 barrels/day times 365 days times 4,000,000,000 years
= 116,800,000,000,000,000,000 barrels of oil

That’s quite a bit. It must weigh a lot. Let’s do the math

116,800,000,000,000,000,000 barrels of oil times .125 tons/barrel
= 14,600,000,000,000,000,000 tons. That’s 14.6 quintillion tons

That much oil must weigh a lot but based on Assumption IV, that is how much oil the earth has produced. Speaking of the earth, how much does it weigh?

Weight of the earth:
5.972 sextillion (5,972,000,000,000,000,000,000) metric tons

If you do the division, the crude oil in the earth now weighs ¼ of one percent of the earth’s weight. Now, we have a problem. Carbon only makes up one-tenth of one-percent of the earth’s crust and we just found out that there are 2 and a half times as much weight in crude oil produced from abiotic sources. Even more astounding is the fact that the earth’s crust is 1% of the earth’s weight and the abiotic oil would be a full one-fourth of that! So, it looks like the rate of production from Abiotic Origins can’t be as high as 80 million barrels per day.

From the failure of Assumption IV, and the other logic we have we can make our conclusion. Even if the theory of abiotic origins is valid, the rate of oil production is lower than our rate of extraction. Logically, it is probably a lot lower than the rate of extraction because production in either case has been happening for a long time and left us with only 2 trillion barrels to start. So, we can conclude that it is irrelevant where oil came from. The rate of Oil Extraction will Peak and the time when that will occur will be sooner rather than later.

Rick Lakin

At 6:09 AM, May 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally someone "Thomas Gold" in particular, that makes sense. If we had to believe the theory that the formation of oil is based soley upon fossil fuels, one could reasonably also conclude based upon oil quantity in "super expansive oil fields" that in order to find more oil, all we need to do to is look where dinosaurs held the dino-orgies. The supply of fossils in one given area it would take to supply the amount of oil that has been tapped thus far seems highly exaggerated and would take more faith to believe in then his scientific conclusion. In short, I hope he is right, I think he is on to something, and I hope we either prove his theory or disprove the fossil theory.

At 11:02 AM, June 11, 2008, Blogger Vagabond Recon777 said...

Thomas Gold's theory makes perfect sense as many of the deep oil wells off the coast of Brazil (in basalt) and Russian wells 42,000 feet deep have already proven.

The slight against Gold's steady state universe theory was also a week one. So what that the majority of scientists "accepts" the "Big Bang Theory", it definitely is mere speculation still and the steady state theory is equally valid.

BTW, the guy with all of the numbers above makes absolutely NO sense. You peak oil people have been predicting peak oil since 1920 and like Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner who predicted mass starvation and basically the end of the world by 1982 are ALWAYS wrong.

Gold, will in the end be proven right. Actually, if you couple gold's theories with the numbers from David Pimentel on ethanol (also from Cornell) you actually arrive at NO energy problem. What we have is an honesty problem in our government and an ignorance problem amongst peak oilers.

Oh, BTW, I'm also a Cornell grad.


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