Monday, April 09, 2012

The Deepwater spill from space. NASA photograph.

Where The Hell Does All That Oil Come From Anyway?

[This is a piece which has been slightly edited to removed some awkward phrasing. It originally appeared in Vyzygoth's ezine ITGN Summer 2010.]

by John Bonanno

“The last century has been one of those periods of extraordinary change, the most amazing in human history. If, then, you ask me to put into one sentence the cause of that recent rapid and enormous change, I should reply, it is found in the discovery and utilization of the means by which heat energy can be made to do man's work for him.”
 – Robert A. Millikan, speech, “Science and the World Tomorrow” delivered at the opening of the New York World’s Fair, April 12, 1939

“Competition is a sin.”
– John D. Rockefeller

The Mystery of Oil

Petroleum can be refined into an easily portable, deliverable, and potent fuel. It arguably is the defining ingredient of our civilization, such as we can boast of civilization. Yet, the origin of oil is mysterious. Although we are constantly inculcated with the term “fossil fuels” there is no unanimous agreement that petroleum (literally “rock oil”) was formed from dead animal and plant life, primarily in sediments at the bottom of the ocean. Some scientists believe that oil was produced from the common elements carbon and hydrogen under heat and pressure within the planet at the time of the formation of Earth; some believe petroleum existed in the solar system in the primordial stuff that would be used to form the planets before the Earth was made. (The atmospheres of the gas giant planets contain large amounts of the basic hydrocarbon, methane.) The idea that oil was formed without stacked dead plants transforming for eons in sediments is known as the abiotic or abiogenic theory of the origin of petroleum. Abiogenic theory has been around for hundreds of years in various guises. In 1877 Dmitri Mendeleev, who designed the first practical periodic table of the elements, was an early proponent of an abiotic origin of oil. Today the Russians, primarily, continue to seek oil without the assumption of fossil origin and are drilling deep wells and finding oil far below the levels that fossil fuel theory proposes that oil is formed or can be found. The Deepwater Horizon well is just such a deep hole drilled by a huge multinational corporation. It has gushed at high pressures vast quantities of petroleum that, I believe, fossil theory has difficulty explaining. Some argue that the absence of oil plumes in areas of the Earth associated with access to the deep interior of the planet argues against abiotic oil. But it can be retorted that those usually volcanic areas long ago spewed out and burned any associated oil and that remaining deep Earth oil is safely trapped by relatively stable sections of the crust of the Earth. We must also remember that the most easily accessible oil deposits are found in areas of major tectonic activity and fault zones. Abiotic theory does not necessarily propose ubiquitous oil evenly spread within the interior of the planet or close to the surface.

Accepted Doctrine

Let us look a little closer at the theory that oil was formed from the remains of dead organic materials. The Encylopedia Brittanica, owned by Rockefeller interests, and edited by persons at the University of Chicago, [a creature of John D. Rockefeller] may have a vested interest in promulgating the fossil fuel idea. In the 1961 edition this, and only this, is said about the origin of oil in the article “Petroleum”:

Most scientists believe oil was formed from the bodies of tiny plants that lived in the sea hundreds of millions of years ago when the sea covered large areas of what are now land masses. These animals and plants lived and died by the billions then sank to the bottom and mixed with mud and sand in layers called marine sediment.”
“Later these sedimentary layers were covered by more mud and sand, which finally turned into rock. As ages passed, the sea withdrew, the earth’s crust heaved and buckled and the heat and pressure caused by the overlaying rocks, together with decomposition of the organic life, is thought to have formed oil from the animals and plants in the deep buried layers. Because of their mutual derivation from organic material, petroleum, natural gas, and coal are known as fossil fuels.”

The Brittanica gives us a longish 12 1/4 pages of text on “Petroleum” with only the quarter page quoted above explaining the origins of the stuff. We note two hedges in the argument (I have put this pure speculation in bold type), which is not exactly a ringing or detailed explanation of the biological origins of oil. This passage leads to an important question: Where did the carbon that life uses to form its structure come from? Other theories of life postulate that a soup of organic chemicals in water spontaneously gathered together to make life. Where did those chemicals come from? Where did the vast amounts of carbon needed to make those vast deposits of dead creatures that made all the oil originate? One wonders how many “tiny plants” and animals had to die and for how long they collected and then one wonders how long it took to compress these “tiny plants” into petroleum under the assumptions of fossil fuel theory for the Deepwater well to ejaculate such huge amounts of oil under such high pressure for so many months. Then we must consider how all those dead “tiny plants” got to a depth of 30,000 feet under the earth’s crust.

A Theoretical Comparison

The first modern oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. It yielded 35 barrels a day after striking oil at 69.5 feet in bedrock. Oil struck at such shallow levels is assumed to have migrated from much deeper levels under the rules of both fossil fuel theory and abiogenic theory alike, although abiogenic theory proposes much deeper levels of formation or primordial collection than fossil theory. Proponents of fossil theory lean heavily on the presence of fossil content in oil for proof. But abiogenic theory counters with the fact that this migration of oil would have contaminated it after bringing it into contact with both fossils and bacteria, including bacteria that feed on petroleum.
Some cynics note that it would be in the interest of 19th Century oil men, like John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil monopoly to popularize the notion that oil came from dead plants and animals and therefore was a commodity as scarce and difficult to find as a hen’s tooth. If the world believed that oil deposits were as plentiful as they have proved to be, then the world would have been reluctant to pay through the nose for oil, or to fight wars for it. Today, Big Oil and OPEC nations can be expected to find it in their interests to maintain this belief.

Peak Oil

Geologist Marion Hubbert first predicted that the world would reach “Peak Oil”, that is, a maximum production point from which a steady decline would occur, by the early 1970’s. Yet world oil production has risen, with slight fluctuations in a few years (likely caused by geo-political issues or recession) since the 1960’s to this day. The Deepwater well operated by BP and Transocean was said to have gushed about 60,000 (estimates range from 35,000 to 100,000) barrels of oil a day for about 85 days from a depth of 35,055 feet, more than six miles down.

“The well, located in Keathley Canyon block 102, approximately 250 miles (400 kilometres) south east of Houston, is in 4,132 feet (1,259 metres) of water. The Tiber well was drilled to a total depth of approximately 35,055 feet (10,685 metres) making it one of the deepest wells ever drilled by the oil and gas industry. The well found oil in multiple Lower Tertiary reservoirs. Appraisal will be required to determine the size and commerciality of the discovery.” –BP press release, September, 2009

Transocean bragged in their own press releases at the time of their prowess in extremely deep water drilling and ultra deep drilling in other wells in the Gulf of Mexican and off Qatar. Deep drilling is an expensive process but, as we have seen from the estimated gush rate of BP’s Deepwater well, it is “well” worth it, if done right. I ask again. How did all those dead “tiny plants” get down that far?
The total amount of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico can therefore be conservatively estimated at about 5,000,000 barrels by this one well. Yes, shallow, known oil reserves may have reached a “peak” yet oil appears to be quite plentiful at astounding depths, far below the known depths of stacked fossil and plant residues. This may be the mysterious source that sometimes refills drained oil fields at easily workable depths.
Before I continue, I must admit I will be disappointed if the abiogenic oil theory is correct. I would prefer that circumstances force us to kick the petroleum habit. I am neither a fan of our centralized, globalized petroleum based civilization, nor of the catastrophic environmental and social effects resulting from the collection and massive use of oil. I also believe that many environmentalists are very reluctant to face the possibility that abundant abiogenic oil lies deep below and romantically hope for and expect a near future when the world runs out of petroleum. By the way, Hubbert was known for the idea that thin plates in thrust faults could not move on the surface of the Earth without fracturing unless the plates floated on high pressure fluids. It seems to be reasonable that continental plates may also move across the Earth floating on the same basic lubricating fluid we pour into that old Buick 6.

The Elements of Oil

Let me emphasize that I am no scientist; I am by nature an artist and my undergraduate degree is in Anthropology, a vague and vast topic, notably resistant to experimentation. But humor me as I continue this little Gedankenversuch (thought experiment). Let us look at the most common elements in the universe, or, at least our solar system, in very approximate percentages by mass.

Hydrogen 70.57%, Helium 27.52%, Oxygen 5.9%, Carbon 3%

Now let us examine the percentages of the elements in petroleum by weight.

 Carbon 84-87%, Hydrogen 11-14%, Sulfer .1-.8%, Nitrogen .1-1.8%, Oxygen .1-1.8%

In our solar system, carbon, the prime ingredient of petroleum, is the fourth most common element. I suspect much of the hydrogen and most of the helium (inert in most situations) in the solar system is locked up in the Sun. That makes carbon very common indeed, as is hydrogen, the prime ingredients of petroleum. It is reasonable to state that petroleum must be a very common substance if these two basic common elements are placed together under the right conditions in our solar system. What evidence exists to indicate that petroleum exists in the solar system, far from known deposits of dead “tiny plants”?

Carbonaceous Meteorites

There is a rare class of meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites which include carbon in their composition up to six percent of their mass. Investigations of these interesting meteorites indicate that they have remained at very low temperatures for 3 to 4.5 billion years. They are the pristine primordial stuff of which the solar system and the Earth was formed. Their history proves beyond much doubt that they have remained free of carbon based life; yet much of the carbon on these meteorites are in the form of hydrocarbons, including specific hydrocarbons cited by fossil fuel theorists as evidence of the fossil origin of petroleum.


Traditional petroleum geologists have claimed a plethora of chemicals as biomarkers in petroleum. These include porphyrins, isoprenoids, pristane, cholestane, terpines, and clarins. All have been found in abiotic meteorite samples. Many of these chemicals are also byproducts of the Fischer-Tropsch process famously used by the Germans during World War II to synthesize gasoline from carbon monoxide and hydrogen (no plants required). This process involves a rapid cooling that is impossible in sediments where dead plants supposedly formed petroleum, but may be possible in space. Porphyrins are especially cited by fossil fuel theorists as a biomarker, yet the porphyrins found in living creatures are linked to chains containing magnesium (in chlorophyll) or iron (in heme). Petroleum porphyrins always are linked to vanadium or nickel, which are not found in biotic species.
The optical activity of petroleum in polarized light has been cited as a proof of biotic origin, yet this same optical activity has been observed in fluids obtained from carbonaceous meteorites. Optical activity in petroleum specific to organic life can be explained as contamination. Fossilized spores and pollen found in petroleum are often cited as biomarkers, and they are biomarkers of the sediments passed by and leached into the petroleum on its way from deep interior sources reflecting many ages.

Final Thoughts

This essay is intended to stimulate thought and to open minds. I was taught in school that oil came from dead plants and animals and that was it. There was no alternative. I remember some kind of a picture of dead dinosaurs falling into tar pits as an example of how oil was made. Well, those tar pits were already there before the dinosaurs. As I studied this issue I came to wonder more and more if the carbon of life didn’t come from pools of petrochemicals breaking down on the surface of the earth to make soils or breaking down under the oceans to form the carbon in solution used by early plants. I saw the fossil fuel theory turned on its head. Dead plants and animals did not form petroleum. Rotted and oxidized deposits of petroleum may have provided the raw materials for plants and animals.


Those who seek a much more technical discussion of these issues can peruse most of the original source documents used in writing this article. The following can be found searching on an invaluable resource for finding documents of all kinds.

Abiogenic Origin of Hydrocarbons: An Historical Overview
Geoffrey P. Glasby
The Non-Organic Theory of the Genesis of Petroleum
Samar Abbas
The evolution of multicomponent systems at high pressures: VI. The thermodynamic stability of the hydrogen–carbon system: The genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum
J. F. Kenney, Vladimir A. Kutcherov, Nikolai A. Bendeliani, and Vladimir A. Alekseev
Abiogenic Or Biogenic Petroleum
S.S. Penner
Dismissal of the Claims of a Biological Connection for Natural Petroleum.
Joint Institute of The Physics of the Earth - Russian Academy of Sciences Gas Resources Corporation, 11811 North Freeway, Houston, TX 77060, U.S.A.
National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
Vladimirskaya Street 56, 252.601 Kiev, UKRAINE
Institute of Geological Sciences
O. Gonchara Street 55-B, 01054 Kiev, UKRAINE
Institute of Geochemistry - Russian Academy of Sciences
Favorskii Street 1a, 664.033 Irkutsk, RUSSIA
Russian State University of Oil and Gas
Leninskii Prospect 65, 117.917 Moscow, RUSSIA
National Petroleum Company of Tatarstan (TatNeft S.A.)
Butlerov Street 45-54, 423.020 Kazan, Tatarstan, RUSSIA
Petroleum Formation and Occurrence, B.P. Tissot, D.H. Welte
Thomas Gold, Professional Papers


Popular Books about Abiotic Oil and the Oil Industry

Do the reading; decide for yourself.  I do not necessarily agree with all the information in the following books, especially Corsi's, but the discerning reader can put together the puzzle from disparate elements.

The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels by Thomas Gold 
The Great Oil Conspiracy: How the Government Hid the Nazi Discovery of Abiotic Oil From the American People by Jerome Corsi
Oil and Finance: The Epic Corruption Continues 2010-2012 by Raymond J. Learsy

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