Saturday, January 28, 2017

Are Fossil Fuels An Old-Fashioned Idea Whose Time Has Gone?

All my life I've heard people declaring that we were running out of oil. Many of these prognosticators were proclaiming that in ten years this disastrous event would occur. As recent as 2004 someone on our local radio was making this claim. The notion has been so ingrained in our heads that for the general public it has become a common assumption. To this day you can find articles fretting that because oil is in finite supply sooner or later it will come to an end, and with it civilization as we know it.

As early as the 1980s I began questioning the popular notions about where oil comes from, and maybe earlier. It just never made sense to me that oil came from decayed vegetative matter and dinosaurs. There's just too much of it. So when I read about Dr. Thomas Gold's theories as conveyed in an article in The Atlantic, I was ripe for the taking. In September 1999 I presented my thoughts on this topic in this article that appeared in National Oil & Lube News.


IN 1964 MY FAMILY MOVED from Cleveland to New Jersey. I was twelve years old and we never had so much company in our lives. All our relatives from the Midwest came east to see us that year. I supposed it was the new house they wanted to see, but later I understood that it was really, among other things, the1964-1965 New York World's Fair that attracted all these kin. If you add in all the class trips and scouting outings, I must have gone two dozen times, which is just about what it takes to really grasp the magnitude and scope of all that it contained.

The World's Fair produced many memorable images, including the Unisphere, itself the featured symbol of the Fair. Another memorable image was a large green brontosaur at the Sinclair Pavilion. There's no way to adequately describe the effect those Mustangs had on us at the Ford Pavilion. In retrospect it seems only natural that the world's largest industry, the auto industry, should be so prominently featured.

There's no question Sinclair's dinosaur was a powerful symbol. Dinosaurs had great power in the imaginations of young people. Whatever became of the dinosaurs? That big green brontosaurus graphically planted the answer in our minds. Yesterday's dinosaurs are today's fuel. It is all part of the circle of life, you might say. Yesterday's dead critters and ancient vegetation are producing today's energy, hence our familiarity with the term "Fossil Fuels" when speaking of gas and petroleum.

The only problem with the dino image is this: What if it's not true?

A 1986 cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Origin of Petroleum" by David Osbourne, shot some rather large holes in the fossil fuels theory. Osbourne is a journalist who brought to a wider audience the ideas of a certain maverick astrophysicist named Thomas Gold.

The occasion for Osbourne's article was a gigantic drilling operation which was about to commence in the Siljan Ring, a site in northern Sweden where a giant meteorite crashed into the earth 360 million years ago. The drilling would take more than a year in an attempt to penetrate deeper than three miles beneath the surface.

What Gold was attempting to prove was that petroleum is not a scarce resource in danger of being soon depleted. This is because oil and gas are not, according to Gold, byproducts of ancient animal life. Gold was attempting to prove his theory that oil and gas come from the earth itself.

Six arguments for drawing this conclusion are as follows:

1. The geographical distribution of oil seems derived from features much larger in scale than individual sedimentary features.

2. The quantities of oil and gas available are hundreds of times those estimated on the basis of biological origins.

3. The so-called "molecular fossils" found in oil and claimed as proof of a biogenic origin are simply biological contaminants, particularly bacteria that feed upon the petroleum.

4. Petroleum is largely saturated with hydrogen, whereas buried biological matter should exhibit a deficiency of hydrogen.

5. Oil and gas are often rich in helium, an inert gas which biological processes cannot concentrate.

6. The great oil reservoirs of the Middle East are in diverse geological provinces. There is no unifying feature for the region as a whole and, especially, no sediments rich in biological debris that could have produced these immense concentrations of oil and gas.

At the time I found the notions fascinating but not much more. Last month, while reading an article titled "Why We'll Never Run Out of Oil" (Discover, June 1999) I began wondering whatever became of the Siljan Ring drilling program. Especially since the Discover article, contrary to my expectations based on the title, made no mention of these radical ideas whatsoever. In fact, the article went into great detail explaining the organic origins of oil.

I suddenly became keenly interested in the results of that study in Sweden. What did they find? Was it a bust? Utilizing the power of the internet I did some of my own digging and came up with what I was looking for. A simple search on Thomas Gold yielded plenty.

I learned that the one year Siljan Ring drilling program actually took six years. The results have been interpreted and Gold has published plenty to support his views, including a new book called "The Deep Hot Biosphere". Gold's theories may be Copernican in importance. (It was Copernicus, you may recall, who postulated the radical notion that the earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. We tend to forget that more than a century passed before this became "common knowledge.")

I also found an excellent article explaining why it is not possible for two separate notions of the origins of oil to co-exist. Gold's article, "Can There Be Two Independent Sources of Commercial Hydrocarbon Deposits, One Derived from Biological Materials, the Other from Primordial Carbon and Hydrogen, Incorporated into the Earth at its Formation?" is explicit and emphatic. There can only be one origin of oil, Gold asserts.

If Gold is right, then the early scientists who called it "rock oil" were much closer to the truth than the ad men who invented the Sinclair mascot. But popular ideas die hard, and so it is that while much has been written, to date the average person seems aware of only the prevailing, somewhat discredited, view.

The point of all this confabulation? Two observations come immediately to mind. First, there appears to be no reason today to be concerned about oil supply. The alarm over an oil shortage in the seventies was an event, not a trend. Oil is an abundant resource and the future of our industry is not going to be jeopardized by oil shortages other than those caused by political maneuverings.*

Second, ideas that initially seem off the wall may have more merit than first thought. When you open your minds, you'll discover that extended drain intervals and synthetic lubricants offer more profit potential than you originally imagined.

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*EdNote: Oil shortages can also be the result of market forces, which I did not consider at the time this was originally written.

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