You know, the stuff I squeeze out of people who ask me what abiotic oil is on Twitter.
Today, shortly after I admitted (gasp) to being a geologist, one of the guys on my judging team asked me about abiotic oil, saying that “there’s been some study in Russia about this.” Which I hadn’t heard about, but he then said that it was a recent thing.
To the best of my knowledge, abiotic oil is a fairly laughable theory. But I decided to do some googling around, just so I don’t get caught off guard by this again.
The first post that I find via google is from FreeEnergyNews.com, which gives me a tingle of apprehension to begin with, just from the website name. Abiotic Oil: This post has a bunch of links for stories from WorldNet Daily, which I’m more familiar with as WingNut Daily, insert logical fallacy here (possibly poisoning the well?). It also posts links to two books from an author whose name I recognize, Thomas Gold. And my recognition of his name comes from this mention of him at the Oil Drum, which is not terribly complimentary. Thomas Gold was also an astrophysicist, not a petroleum geologist.
Now, the post over at the Oil Drum brings up one example where people got all excited about oil being abiotic because OMG IT’S COMING OUT OF BEDROCK, when the facts really looked more like it was oil migrating through faulted horst blocks of the bedrock, since tectonics had partially shifted source rocks so they were under the basement rock in some places. This conclusion comes from this AAPG article, and I will say that AAPG is a professional organization of petroleum geologists and puts out several trusted publications, including the one this article appeared in (Explorer), so I’m going to take their word for it.
However, the “abiotic” oil of Vietnam is not what I’m after here, rather I’m looking for Russia in particular. By adding Russia to my search, I came up with some interesting sites:
An introduction to the modern petroleum science, and to the Russian-Ukrainian theory of deep, abiotic petroleum origins: I think this pretty much outlines the theory, and is in favor of it. As an amusing aside, there’s a link to a discussion of plagiarism of the theory. Specifically Thomas Gold plagiarizing the theory from Russian scientists.
One of the sections in the Russian-Ukrainian theory post talks about refuting a biotic origin of oil. While at this point I could see trying to find some wiggle room to allow for both biotic and abiotic oil, but trying to claim that no oil is biotic makes little sense. As just one example, one thing we look for when exploring possible oil sources are kerogens, which come in different types (dependent upon original depositional environment) and release oil when sufficiently cooked. Trying to take kerogens out of the equation (or claiming they’re not organically sourced) really flies in the face of a lot of well-established science.
I will also note that going on the theory that oil comes from sedimentary source rocks (where you find those kerogens) has proved to be extremely predictive in oil exploration. Which is a good sign for oil coming from dead critters.
On the other side, a post at FromTheWilderness.com examines many of the fields considered to be “abiotic” proof, and finds them wanting. This post also has found a special place in my heart because of this:
While everyone is free to form his or her own opinion, when people start talking about a conspiracy of scientists to cover up the supposed abiotic origin of oil, then all an honest scientist can do is to shrug her or his shoulders and say that he or she is not aware of any such conspiracy. In fact, such a contention makes numerous logical errors; based on the logical fallacies listed at http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/index.html, I can count at least 17 errors of logic frequently made by those who argue that the biological origin of oil is a conspiracy. Such errors of logic are the province of a politician, not a scientist.
Back to the Oil Drum post, they recommend reading Richard Heinberg’s The “Abiotic Oil” Controversy, which I wholeheartedly recommend as well. Heinberg makes a very well-thought out, reasonable argument, and here’s the summation of his take-home point:
There is no way to conclusively prove that no petroleum is of abiotic origin. Science is an ongoing search for truth, and theories are continually being altered or scrapped as new evidence appears. However, the assertion that all oil is abiotic requires extraordinary support, because it must overcome abundant evidence, already cited, to tie specific oil accumulations to specific biological origins through a chain of well-understood processes that have been demonstrated, in principle, under laboratory conditions.
I don’t think it’s possible to, in detail, refute every claim of abiotic oil genesis. Because if nothing else, we don’t know everything there is to know about how most oil is generated, let alone how all of it is generated. And Heinberg makes another good point – even if we eventually reach the conclusion that some hydrocarbons are generated abiotically, this does not really change the energy crisis our dependence on fossil fuels is causing. He says:
What if oil were in fact virtually inexhaustible—would this be good news? Not in my view. It is my opinion that the discovery of oil was the greatest tragedy (in terms of its long-term consequences) in human history. Finding a limitless supply of oil might forestall nasty price increases and catastrophic withdrawal symptoms, but it would only exacerbate all of the other problems that flow from oil dependency—our use of it to accelerate the extraction of all other resources, the venting of CO2 into the atmosphere, and related problems such as loss of biodiversity. Oil depletion is bad news, but it is no worse than that of oil abundance.
To a certain extent, I think the attraction of the abiotic theory is that it means people can ignore the thought that we might some day (some very soon day) effectively run out of oil. But whether we can run out of oil or not changes nothing about the environmental damage we are causing by recklessly burning a natural resource that really deserves to be treated with more care.