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July 15, 2004 2:29 AM   Subscribe

Sustainable oil? Over the past few years there's been a growing theory that oil is not created from the decaying remains of ancient biological life but is in fact a product of the Earth's geological processes and that the current estimated oil reserves may be off by a factor of 100. This theory was made popular by Thomas Gold at Cornell way back in 1992 and has led to much more recent research (warning: heavy scientific conent) which supports the theory.
posted by PenDevil (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Less technical article over at Wired.
posted by nathan_teske at 2:42 AM on July 15, 2004

I heard about that. Bad old news.
posted by ed\26h at 2:56 AM on July 15, 2004

I haven't read the articles yet, but still, if sustainable oil means a sustainable source of oil, would't this be an ecological disaster? Since burning oil based fuel causes huge stress on the enviroment... A better scenario would be that we recognize that there is not a sustainable supply and (finally) develop all of those clean alternative energy technologies that have been marginalized for so long... (In my opinion).
posted by sic at 2:57 AM on July 15, 2004

James Lovelock thinks we're out of time and need to go nuclear.
posted by homunculus at 3:17 AM on July 15, 2004

See? This is irrefutable and we should definitely hedge our bets on this being right. America, your guilt about driving your huge vehicles is OVER!
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:47 AM on July 15, 2004

Cheney believes oil production will peak in 2010.
posted by roboto at 4:08 AM on July 15, 2004

I'd rather have sustainable air, k'thanks.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:20 AM on July 15, 2004

Sustainable bullshit.

And the universe is only 6000 years old. It's a theory that has a body of pseudoscience to back it up. Relatively easy to do so long as your suspension of disbelief is adequate. Just ignore any contraindicating evidence. Nothing to see here!

It's fine to think on these things but to give this "theory" any credence is a bit much.
posted by nofundy at 4:58 AM on July 15, 2004

It's fine to think on these things but to give this "theory" any credence is a bit much.

Do you actually have any evidence to suggest that this research is flawed? I haven't read it in detail, as it's not my field, but presumably the PNAS article was peer-reviewed, and that sort of journal doesn't strike me as being pseudoscience.

Of course, as other people have pointed out, the longevity of oil reserves is hardly the issue here, as the environmental issues of fossil fuel combustion are the bulk of the problem - let's just hope that the world moves away from fossil fuels even if they don't become scarce.
posted by Singular at 5:13 AM on July 15, 2004

Singular - well to begin with, observe the oil discovery to oil production curve (below).

Thomas Gold's theory is not pseudoscience. It probably describes a real phenomenon - but, by the same token, the theory has also been wildly overstated and I'd say that Wired (which ran the story most recently) was suckered in by this theory which could be better described as "ironic" science ( a term coined by "The End of Science" author Paul Horgan )

Gold's theory is ironic science for the fact that - while it may well be true - it is largely irrelevant and serves mostly now as a sort of fetish object which advocates of the "we can never actually run out of any resources" camp can stroke for reassurance.

And reassurance they certainly need (see the graph below) because Gold's "deep hot biosphere" just doesn't - if real - produce significant amounts of oil and gas.

This is a pictorial description of the now famous "Hubbert Curve" - see HubbertPeak.com - which also precisely depicted the rise and subsequent decline of oil production in the US which also - ironically - doomed the oil well drilling attempt by George W. Bush's business ventures to failure. The oil in Texas was - even then - growing rather scarce.

Gold's theory is an irrelevant corpse of an idea which gets periodically reanimated by a jolt of lightning and then shuffles around for a bit - as on Metafilter before keeling over again.

Oil's getting scarce. Let's acknowledge that fact and deal with it rather than trying to hide in such fantasy worlds.

(where's samelborp? - he's a petroleum geologist, I believe)

posted by troutfishing at 6:08 AM on July 15, 2004

posted by troutfishing at 6:09 AM on July 15, 2004

That's the Hubbert Curve. It's real. Get used to it.

Wishful thinking will not make it disappear.
posted by troutfishing at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2004

Earth is a living being. Oil is its blood. Take too much, and it will die.
posted by banished at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2004

is in fact a product of the Earth's geological processes

Errr, exactly HOW is oil 'Sustainable' if it is a GEOLOGICAL process?

Last time I checked, geological processes move slower than biological ones.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:13 AM on July 15, 2004

troutfishing: Thanks for the detailed explaination. I much prefer your use of the term ironic science instead of pseudoscience. I certainly agree with you that regardless of whether the theory is valid or not, it's not an excuse to take the attitude that “it'll all be okay - let's carry on as before”. My apologies if that's what my comment implied. I was more objecting to nofundy's apparent rejection of the statement that the proposed mechanism might exist with little evidence to support the claim.
posted by Singular at 6:27 AM on July 15, 2004

Singular - you're welcome. In nofundy's defense, I could almost hear the steam blowing out of his ears at the claim that "the current estimated oil reserves may be off by a factor of 100" (or the abuse of the term "sustainable"). I think PenDevil might glued a legimate scientific theory (Gold's) onto some less than legitimate claims - which I'd tend to guess are more like pseudoscience, for the simple fact that the "off by a factor of 100" claim is totally unsupported by facts on the ground (oil discovery rates).
posted by troutfishing at 6:48 AM on July 15, 2004

I do oil chemical analysis for a living (some of my output can be found here).

The chemical "fossils" in oil very very stongly imply plant origins: oil is full of turpanoids, hopanes and the like. You find those in plants, but no so much in bacteria or animals. It's very likely that oil come from degraded vegitiable matter, not from bacterial residues. Theories for "deep", bacterial-origin oil would have to explain this. I've seen nothing to convince me that deep oil is credible.
posted by bonehead at 6:55 AM on July 15, 2004

I think we need to seperate the arguments of where oil comes from and how much of it is actually currently reachable.

I'm not sure about the size of the reserves. The '100' factor was taken from the article. I think the theory is getting more serious attention because of the work presented in the last link of the FPP. That paper does not do any estimations of the amount of reserves, rather it shows that oil can be produced spontaneously under high pressures below the Earth's mantle. And this coupled with the recent discoveries of bacteria being able to survive at deep level below the Earth's crust might be what gives oil it's biological fingerprint.

Of course I, like most other people, would prefer that we move to cleaner sources of fuel (I'm all for nuclear) but is interesting to see a potential fundamental shift in what many people thought was a known scientific fact: that oil is produced by decomposed ancient organisms.
posted by PenDevil at 7:01 AM on July 15, 2004

There are no good estimates of reserve sizes, save perhaps to an order of magnitude, and probably not even that. OPEC is notorious for "adjusting" their reserve sizes to meet market conditions.
posted by bonehead at 7:10 AM on July 15, 2004

How long 'til we can start drilling in cemeteries?
posted by jpoulos at 7:12 AM on July 15, 2004

There were rather furious Russian reactions concerning the origins of Gold's ideas on the inorganic origins of hydrocarbons. There seems to be a significant russian literature on the subject since at least the 50s.
However, my limited understanding of what the Russians actually are saying, is that this process is independent of the (real) biologically originating commercial resources and that they have not nade any claim about commercial scale quantities of non-biological hydrocarbons.
posted by talos at 7:32 AM on July 15, 2004

PanDevil, unless your bacteria look very much like plants, a bateriogenic origin for oil is not very credible. The lack of explination of some striaght-forward analytical chemistry is one of the major strikes against most "deep oil" theories.
posted by bonehead at 7:34 AM on July 15, 2004

Can I request that everyone please use the word hypothesis in place of "theory"? Because that's what it is.
posted by mathowie at 7:44 AM on July 15, 2004

I think bonehead has a good point which I did not see addressed in the articles or the paper cited. Crude oil is an incredibly complex substance filled with myriad chemicals. If it just condensed from high pressure ethane and ethane compounds you would expect it to be much simpler in its mixture of chemicals. Given the play this hypothesis has had, I would guess someone has addressed this issue, but I couldn't find anything, at least in a quick Google search.
posted by caddis at 8:12 AM on July 15, 2004

Robert Ehrlich has a good examination of Gold's ideas in
Nine Crazy Ideas in Science
. (An excellent book by the way.) Ehrlich analyzes the criticisms of Gold's detractors as well as Gold's answers to those criticisms. His bottom line - Gold's theory is good science. It may not be correct, and if it is correct, it still has a long way to go to convince most professionals in the field. Nevertheless, it's based on solid evidence and gives rise to testable predictions and useful lines of inquiry.

And Matt, from what I've read of Gold's ideas, I'd be inclined to use the word "theory".
posted by tdismukes at 8:19 AM on July 15, 2004

Part of the problem is that no one I know of has actually tried to turn organic material into oil under the conditions that Gold (or the russians) suppose are necessary. We really don't know what "inorganic" or bacteriogenic oil would look like. Not having any eperimental data, only arguments from thermodynamic theory doesn't help the "deep oil" case(s).

The terpanoids and other fragments in the oil, biomarkers they're called, are widely used in the oil industry to asses well conditions, to gauge where the oil grades are best and so on. We use biomarkers for forensic purposes---given a spill, which source did it come from? Biomarkers are found in every petroleum1 source anyone has ever looked at.

Are biomarkers formed under the conditions invoked by "deep oil" hypotheses? It seems exceedingly unlikely. It seems much more likely that they come from plant cell fragments, where they can be found in living organisms.

1Given the context of this argument, it strikes me that the very word "petroleum"---oil from rock--- is pleasingly oxymoronic.
posted by bonehead at 8:40 AM on July 15, 2004

where's samelborp? - he's a petroleum geologist, I believe


I am just a freelance writer that has read too many geological papers! (and has made some real petroleum geologist friends in the meantime).

Last time I checked this theory with professor Marzo (from the Universitat de Barcelona), he told me that Gold's theory is not bad science, but that it hasn't been demonstrated yet. Other simply say that what it matters is not the ultimate amount of hydrocarbon molecules in place, but the amount and rate at that we can extract them, specially when you have a thirsty world that demands 76 million oil barrels a day...
posted by samelborp at 11:19 AM on July 15, 2004

I think what many of you are saying isn't so much about whether it is actually possible that oil is produced in the way that Gold describes, but if it is at all meaningful to us in the sense that it will allow our empire of oil to continue indefinitely (to which I think the obvious answer is no, regardless of whether or not we continue to find new oil). Burning oil to fuel our economy will have to stop at some point, as others pointed out, it is a matter of when we choose to deal with it.
posted by McBain at 12:03 PM on July 15, 2004

It's an interesting theory, but it doesn't really matter where the oil comes from (and I'm doubtful of his claim that some oil fields refill from below - oil is generally found at 7,500 - 15000 feet and below that you tend to get gas) - . The simple fact is reserves are running out, the number of discoveries has dramatically fallen, and the price is rising because of that.
posted by BigCalm at 3:04 PM on July 15, 2004

BigCalm - That's a very good summary - however oil is produced, demand is far outstripping production. That's the point of my graph (above).

"It's quite possible that oil can be formed as a result of more than one process." - maybe several processes, sure, but discovery and "production" are still declining.

So here we are. China needs more. We need more : hence, a crunch.

Why not look to the sun ?
posted by troutfishing at 11:52 PM on July 15, 2004

*It hurts my eyes!*
posted by asok at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2004

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