It’s possible that our energy policies have been founded on a myth.
Theories of Origins
Since the 19th century it has been widely assumed that petroleum fuels have primordial origins, dating back to the original formation of the Earth. The commonly held view is that oil was produced from the decay of living organisms (primarily ocean plankton) that proliferated millions of years ago during relatively brief periods of global warming and were buried in ocean sediment under fortuitous circumstances.
(While organic theorists have long posited that the material required to produce hydrocarbons in sedimentary rock came from dinosaurs and ancient forests, more recent arguments have advanced the theory that living organisms as small as plankton may have been the origin.)
During the last half of the 20th century, with advances in geophysics and geochemistry, the vast majority of scientists lined up on the side of the traditional biotic theory. Further-more, our policies regarding energy sources have regarded petroleum as a “non-renewable” resource. This perspective may have been tragically short-sighted.
In the 1950s, a small group of Russian and Ukrainian geologists—but including a tiny handful of Western scientists (among them the late Cornell University physicist Thomas Gold)—have held out for an abiotic (inorganic) theory.1
Thomas Gold’s book, The Deep Hot Biosphere (1998) argued that hydrocarbons existed at the time of the solar system’s formation, and are known to be abundant on other planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and some of their moons) where no life is presumed to have flourished in the past.
The abiotic theory holds that hydrocarbons are naturally produced on a continual basis throughout the solar system, including within the mantle of the Earth. The advocates of this view believe that the oil then seeps up through bedrock cracks to deposit in sedimentary rock. Thus, traditional petrogeologists apparently have confused the rock as the originator, rather than simply the depository, of the hydrocarbons.
The organic materials which are found in petroleum deposits are easily explained by the metabolism of bacteria that have been found in extreme environments similar to the Earth’s mantle. These hyperthemophiles (bacteria that thrive in extreme environments), have been found in hydrothermal vents, at the bottom of volcanoes, and in places where scientists formerly believed life was impossible.
The abiotic origin of petroleum deposits would explain some phenomena that are not currently understood, such as why petroleum deposits almost always contain biologically inert helium.
On the other hand, the abiotic origin theory has been rejected by most geologists because of the low content of 13C isotopes. 13C (“Carbon-13”) is the carbon isotope scientists associate with abiotic origin, compared to 12C typically associated with biological origin.
Hydrogen-rich fluids have now been reported venting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, apparently produced by abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in the mantle of the earth. Giora Proskurowski, of the School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, found hydrocarbons containing 13C isotopes that appeared to be formed from the mantle of the earth rather than from biological material settled on the ocean floor.2
These were gathered in a hypothermal field that sits along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at the center of the Atlantic Ocean, about 2,100 ft. below sea level. This is the second time that Proskurowski and his team descended in a scientific subma-rine to collect liquid bubbling up from those sea vents. (The first was in 2003.)
Proskurowski attributes the hydrothermal fluids to abiotic production by Fischer-Tropsch reactions. Fischer-Tropsch re-actions were first developed by German scientists for producing synthetic oil from coal. “Our findings illustrate that the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in nature may occur in the presence of ultramafic3 rocks, water and moderate amounts of heat,” Proskurowski explains.
This was the second discovery in recent years adding weight to the abiotic theory of the origin of oil: in 2005, a NASA probe to Titan, the giant moon of Saturn, discovered abundant 13C methane that NASA declared to be abiotic in origin.
While this is still a highly controversial view, the implications are deeply profound.
A Challenging Perspective
Although the available oil reserves are astonishingly plentiful (Alberta, Canada, has the largest known oil reserve in the world, which exceeds the total reserves of the Middle East!—four-fifths of the worldwide deposits of heavy hydrocarbons are in the Western Hemisphere), it now also appears that petroleum may prove to be a renewable form of energy, contrary to commonly promoted opinions.
Further research may validate an entirely different approach to our geopolitical predicaments.