Posted on Wednesday, 3 February, 2010 | 3 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker
Some scientists have a very unscientific habit of proposing theories (or, sometimes, just wild guesses) and then treating them as established facts. For example, we are told that Earth’s magnetic field is produced by currents in the core, but there is absolutely no proof of this, and there are serious objections to the idea. Yet most geophysicists and astronomers and the editors of popular science magazines treat this as if it had been proven true. Another example is the claim that petroleum and natural gas are fossil fuels, produced by the decay of organic sediments composed of microscopic marine organisms. Supposedly their decay produces a tar like substance called kerogen, which is largely composed of very heavy hydrocarbons. As layers of sediment pile on top of these supposed kerogen deposits, they are eventually buried so deep that the Earth’s internal heat and pressure convert the kerogen to lighter hydrocarbons, including methane (CH4, the main component of natural gas). And there is no doubt that kerogen, found in oil shales and tar sands, can be converted by heat into oil and gas.
There is also no doubt that most, and possibly all coal is formed from terrestrial plant life. Fossilized tree ferns and the remains of other plants can be found in coal deposits. Peat, used as a fuel in some places, is clearly formed from buried vegetation, and it is easy to see how peat, buried deeply, forms brown coal, or lignite, and then bituminous coal and finally anthracite coal. In addition, there is no doubt that decaying vegetation produces methane; it bubbles up in swamps. It is also found in coal mines. But vegetation is vegetation, whether terrestrial plants or marine organisms; they all contain many of the same organic compounds. That being the case, why don’t we find large amounts of oil and larger amounts of methane in coal mines? And why do oil and gas well drillers never find any kind of hard, coal like carbon deposits? The land plants, if the fossil fuel theory for oil and gas is true, should have produced oil and gas and the marine organisms should have produced some coal.
Decades ago, some maverick researchers, most of them in the old Soviet Union, proposed that the fossil fuel theory is incorrect, and that most oil and gas is of abiotic origin, formed from methane and other carbon compounds trapped in the Earth when it was formed. They suggest that there is no “peak oil,” but that vast amounts of oil and gas are slowly rising from Earth’s mantle and the lower crust, enough to last us for thousands or even millions of years. Dmitri Mendeleev, a chemist, was one of the Soviet proponents of abiotic origin; many of the others were geologists. French chemist Marcellin Berthelot and American astronomer Thomas Gold were among the first Westerners to agree with them. Gold even convinced Swedish authorities to drill a test well in granite with no organic sediments over, under, or in it, and small amounts of oil were found. Oil and gas have been found elsewhere when wells penetrated below all the sediments, but skeptics claim that the oil somehow leaked down from overlying sediments, or that the rock layers had so folded and twisted that the igneous basement rocks were now above some sediments.
In the mud on ocean bottoms, vast amounts of methane are trapped in frozen hydrates or methane clathrates, far exceeding all the gas ever produced or found in proven reserves. Found at depths over 300 meters, the methane molecules, due to cold and pressure, are trapped in a kind of cage of water molecules and mixed with the sediments. The methane trapped in one small area off the coast of the Carolinas could, if we could extract it, supply the US with over fifty years of natural gas…and this is but a small part of the worldwide supply of clathrates. We may or may not be able to develop safe and economical ways of tapping this resource, but the sheer volume of the gas is hard to explain with the biological theory. The carbon alone in the clathrates is estimated at twice the total amount of carbon in all other “fossil fuel” deposits, and these include coal, which is mostly carbon.
Helium gas is found in some gas wells, enough to make it profitable to extract it. This light and inert gas, because it cannot burn, is used in balloons and airships. Being inert and non-reactive it cannot form compounds, including organic compounds. So everyone is forced to admit that helium is abiotic; it was trapped inside the Earth when our planet was formed. So if helium was trapped, why not methane?
Interstellar gas and dust clouds contain a variety of hydrocarbons and other organic compounds, obviously not formed from marine algae, compounds such as methane, formaldehyde, acetylene, ethylene, ketene, methanol, and benzene. In addition, the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan is mostly methane, and no one seriously believes that oceans of liquid water and marine organisms exist on Titan, which is far from the Sun and colder than dry ice. So if methane and other hydrocarbons form in space and can be trapped on Titan, obviously some must have been trapped in the early Earth. In addition, some meteorites, called carbonaceous chondrites, contain kerogen, the supposed residue of marine organisms which is converted into petroleum…but there are no marine organisms in space, largely because there are no oceans. Currently accepted theory holds that the Earth was formed by the accretion of meteors, asteroids, and comets, so, along with the methane, significant amounts of kerogen had to have been trapped in our planet at its birth.
So it is virtually certain that much oil and gas (but probably not all of it) is of abiotic origin, and the amounts remaining are likely to far exceed all that we have tapped so far. The problem is that the hydrocarbons (oil and gas are mostly composed of the paraffin series, or alkanes), lighter than the surrounding rocks, rise up gradually but diffusely all over the Earth. It is uneconomical to try to tap the oil and gas except where it has concentrated by accumulating in salt domes and under anticlines. Salt deposits, also being less dense than surrounding rocks, rise and bulge up toward the center of the formation, and push the rock layers above them up as well. If these overlying layers are impervious to fluid penetration, oil and gas can be trapped between the salt and the layer above. Anticlines are simply ridges formed by tectonic forces; if the upper layers are impervious they, too, can trap commercially recoverable deposits of hydrocarbons.
And it is a dirty little secret that the US has vast proven reserves of recoverable oil and gas, with more being found all the time. Large reserves of natural gas have been found recently in deep shale deposits, and new drilling methods make it recoverable. Waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast contain an estimated 420 trillion cubic feet of gas and 86 billion barrels of oil. Alaska’s ANWR region has at least five billion barrels of recoverable oil, with more elsewhere on Alaska’s North Slope. The huge and recently discovered Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana has 175-500 billion barrels of recoverable oil. These above deposits alone could supply all of America’s oil and gas, assuming no imports, for well over forty years. And this is without counting older fields that are still producing in Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere, and the fact that large new discoveries continue to be made. And then there is the oil that can be refined (at present it is not very economical) from kerogen in oil shale deposits. The Green River shale formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming contains more oil than all the rest of the world’s proven conventional reserves. And of course, the methane clathrates mentioned above are an immense resource, and engineers are cautiously optimistic that safe and economical recovery technologies can be developed. In addition, we now know that most depleted oil and gas fields, once abandoned, slowly fill up again, especially the gas. As we keep making new discoveries, more and more old fields are left behind and should be considered as a future resource.
It seems likely that theories of ”peak oil” are just that…theories. The US is, in fact, incredibly rich in “fossil fuels.” Our dependence on imports is a contrived situation, and our failure to develop our vast domestic reserves is based on political decisions by environmental extremists. If, as seems virtually certain, most of our hydrocarbon fuels were trapped in our planet when it formed some 4.6 billion years ago, the chances that we just happen to be living in the period when most of it is depleted are remote. Almost certainly we have enough oil and gas to last us thousands, even millions of years. Of course we should practice energy conservation when it is economical to do so, and of course we should try to develop new energy sources. But failure now to tap the reserves we know we have is madness.Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.