The good oil
I was recently introduced to the theory of abiogenic petroleum origin. Adopting the Facebook dogma that mere ignorance of a subject should not prevent one from expressing strong opinions about said subject, I thought I would have a go.
Put simply, the various collected hypotheses argue that petroleum and natural gas are formed by inorganic means rather than by the decomposition of organisms. Or as the acquaintance who introduced me eloquently put it, “oil is not the product of rotting plankton, but rather is continually produced from the centre of the earth”.
As Höök et al observe:
Although scientific evidence and supporting observations can be found for both models, the amount of evidence for a biogenic origin is overwhelming in comparison to that for the abiotic theory. (Höök et al, 2010)
My acquaintance referenced Sir Fred Hoyle as a champion of abiogenesis. Though a notorious crackpot and contrarian (Hoyle, I mean), he did write some decent science fiction. He also said:
The suggestion that petroleum might have arisen from some transformation of squashed fish or biological detritus is surely the silliest notion to have been entertained by substantial numbers of persons over an extended period of time.
If one Googles this apparently famous comment, one finds oneself sinking into a seething ocean of mad pseudo-science.
For instance, according to the rather interesting site Gas Resources, thousands of journal articles were published on this theory in Russian journals between 1951 and 2001. The site does include a single article titled “Dismissal of the Claims of a Biological Connection for Natural Petroleum”. Regrettably I cannot find any reference to the journal (Energia) in which the article was supposed to have been published. Google Scholar throws up a single reference to the article, which simply refers back to the website.
The Wikipedia article on the subject has been extensively revised in recent years, and now seems to be too busy arguing with itself to make much sense. So I turned to Google Scholar for some help with actual peer-reviewed science.
There have been almost 2,000 books and articles published on this subject since 2008. Not being a petroleum geologist or having more than a commercial background in the hydrocarbon industry, I have just cherry-picked a few of the more interesting papers that I could actually understand.
The abiotic theory is of interest because of its association with peak oil (Höök et al, 2012). Objectors to the concept of peak oil favour the abiotic theory because it implies that because oil is generated deep in the mantle by non-biological processes, it will not run out in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, it is irrelevant:
…as long as the extraction process is significantly faster than the creation process, fossil fuels must be categorized as non-renewable and subject to depletion — regardless of their biogenic or abiotic origin (Höök et al, 2010).
The biogenic origin of coal is firmly established, so it seems logical that liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons formed through similar processes (Durand, 2003).
Höök et al conclude that
…it is possible to create abiotic oil in some laboratory conditions of high pressure and temperatures and that minor amount of abiotic hydrocarbons may be created in the mantle. However, commercially interesting accumulations have never been found.
Durand also pointed out that the proponents of the abiogenic theory were “generally chemists with very little geological knowledge”.
So the current scientific consensus in 2016 seems to be “nice idea, not terribly useful, no actual proof”.
- Ahmed, M., Lehnert, O., Fuentes, D. and Meinhold, G., 2014. Origin of oil and bitumen in the Late Devonian Siljan impact structure, central Sweden. Organic Geochemistry, 68, pp.13-26.
- Durand, B., 2003. A history of organic geochemistry. Oil & gas science and technology, 58(2), pp.203-231.
- Höök, M., Bardi, U., Feng, L. and Pang, X., 2010. Development of oil formation theories and their importance for peak oil. Marine and Petroleum Geology, 27(9), pp.1995-2004.
- Kutcherov, V.G. and Krayushkin, V.A., 2010. Deep‐seated abiogenic origin of petroleum: From geological assessment to physical theory. Reviews of geophysics, 48(1).