May 22, 2001
11:36 AM   Subscribe

What if oil and natural gas were renewable resources? Prof. Thomas Gold opines that oil is produced by microbes breaking down methane deep within the earth, thus explaining how some depleted oilfields have begun producing again. He even wrote a book on it. Brilliant re-examination of accepted theory or crackpot lunatic?
posted by CRS (9 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

A long Wired article from last year on Thomas Gold. Oliver Morton's quotation of Carl Sagan -- that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" -- seems valid here.

As for whether he's a genius or a lunatic... well, he's a scientist. He's asking contentious questions. One could argue, though, that his contention is akin to that of astronomers searching for extraterrestrial life. It's all very well to prove that the theory is feasible, but you can't run your car on feasibility alone.
posted by holgate at 11:55 AM on May 22, 2001

I certainly hope he's wrong. At least with a rapidly decreasing supply of nonrenewable petroleum, we're going to be forced to stop burning the stuff eventually. Inexhaustible oil wells would mean no incentive to switch to some cleaner fuel source. Climate change is scary enough as it is - can you imagine how much worse it would be if we never had to stop pumping carbon into the air?

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:56 AM on May 22, 2001

He's a crackpot. A lunatic. Fossil fuel is bad, and he's republican.

Alright, I guess I'm a bit heavy with cynisism right now, but, right fossil fuel does damange the enviroment, it's expensive to get and cause wars. Is that what Thomas Gold wants to tell you? That we should stick with natural oil? I think he's wrong then. If he's simply telling us this without an agenda then, well, he's just doing that. Anyone willing to provide an answer? As well as some non-amazon links about his theory, ones that go into the specifics?

I can imagine flame posts anyway.
posted by tiaka at 11:56 AM on May 22, 2001

Where does the methane come from?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:01 PM on May 22, 2001

It was my impression "depleted" fields that have begun producing again have done so largely because of improvements in drilling technology. The oil has been there all along, it's just that we couldn't see it or get to it until recently. This story by Jonathan Rauch from the Atlantic (which I believe was posted here in another thread) does a pretty good job of explaining this.

I agree with Mars, though -- just because there's a lot more oil than we thought doesn't mean we should go on burning it indefinitely. However, I think it's feasible that the kinds of incremental improvements Rauch talks about in his article (changes that seem small individually but which have collectively led to a revolution in oil drilling) will eventually lead to alternative energy sources becoming more affordable than oil. In that event it is good that we'll have enough oil to carry us over until that happens.
posted by kindall at 12:04 PM on May 22, 2001

SDB: My understanding is that the methane, being such an elemental (no pun intended) hydrocarbon, is actually a natural product of the earth's own internal workings (anyone familiar with Lovelock's Gaia Theory should appreciate a planet with flatulence...).
posted by silusGROK at 12:20 PM on May 22, 2001

Ive been following him for a while. He is no crackpot he has a long history of makeing crackpot claims that turn out to be true.. he just doesnt care what people think. And he has evidence. He drilled into solid granite where no oil would ever be found and found oil. There is evidence of possible oil on other planets.
posted by stbalbach at 1:57 PM on May 22, 2001

One of Gold's papers sets out the basis for his theory of primordial hydrocarbon formation, essentially tying together certain geological theories on the relationship between biological material and petrochemical deposits with astronomical research on the presence of methane in environments without apparent biological activity.
posted by holgate at 2:06 PM on May 22, 2001

Any time you challenge the existing orthodoxy with a different theory, your new theory has to explain a few things.

For one thing, it has to be at least as good if not better at making predictions as the old one.

For another, it has to explain why the old incorrect theory made such good predictions.

Why is it that the existing theory on petroleum formation is so good at predicting where oil wells should be drilled? It's not that every well gets oil, but the ones based on theory have a lot better chance of striking oil than the ones which are randomly placed.

This new theory had better explain why petroleum is concentrated in just a few places or it's a waste of time.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:00 PM on May 22, 2001

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