Abiotic Oil

Inorganic Oil, "Sustainable" Oil

(last updated April 2005)

The peak oil theory says that oil production will reach a peak, or already has, and then as production declines while demand increases, our oil-dependent global industrial system will break down. That link goes to a great essay on the issue by James Kunstler. Here's another good summary on Life After the Oil Crash. And for a ton of graphs and links, check out Die Off or the bloated oilempire page. It's all pretty non-controversial, unless somehow there's a lot more oil than we think.

Enter abiotic oil, also called "inorganic oil," the theory that oil is not from dead dinosaurs but from chemical reactions in the Earth's mantle. That link goes to a summary of the issue that leans toward abiotic oil. Dave McGowan has used the abiotic oil theory to attack the peak oil crowd, suggesting that they're part of a conspiracy to make us think the oil is running out when it's not, perhaps so the oil industry can inflate prices. (Indeed, according to this story, they are inflating prices!) Here's another article alleging that the Russians are getting apparently unlimited oil from super-deep wells, but then, why is Russia's oil output slowing?

If it's true that there's plenty more oil, it just changes the character of the coming crash -- it will be through toxicity or ecological catastrophe instead of lack of energy, it will take longer, and the earth is a lot more likely to die. Here's an excerpt from William Kötke's summary of the 1972 "Limits To Growth" study:

"The scholars programmed the computers so as to double the estimated resource base, they created a model that assumed "unlimited" resources, pollution controls, increased agricultural productivity and "perfect" birth control. None of these or other aversion strategies could take the world system past 2100.

The reason that the world system cannot go on with unlimited growth is because each of the five factors is interactive. If we assume unlimited fuels such as a simple fusion process, this simply drives the growth curves faster. There is more cheap fuel so the wheels of industry churn faster and resource exhaustion comes more quickly, population continues to climb and pollution climbs. If there is more food production, then population climbs and resources are exhausted more rapidly. If population is stabilized, resources still continue to decline and pollution increases because of increased consumption. If the factors of resources, food, and industrial output grow then population grows but the resulting pollution creates the negative feedback of having to maintain cancer hospitals and institutions for the birth defected and mutations caused by pollution as well as pollution damage to factors such as farm crops."

As of October 2004, the peak oil writers are finally posting some strong critiques of the abiotic oil position. Here's one from Richard Heinberg, who hits a few points but says the issues are so complex that you'd need a whole book to cover it properly. And here's one from Ugo Bardi, who argues that the abiotic generation rates would have to be so small as to be politically insignificant. The consensus is that there might be abiotic oil, but that it's not going to delay the crash. My own correspondent, chemical engineering student Ryan Glinski, comes to a similar conclusion:

. . .

I followed your link to a link to a link, to an actual scientific article. Seems there's more to oil than some primordial forest. That oil they're drilling in the Ukraine and Russia really is of a different ilk than oil found in other places. A few points.

One: This does not mean that all oil is abiotic. They say in the same article that there are no biotic-microparticles (or something) in the Russian oil, which proves it's abiotic. The reason they looked for these particles is that they are found in other sources of oil, proving, I guess, their biological origin. But the different results from the same experiment suggests that there are two kinds of oil here -- the evidence doesn't prove that all oil is abiotic.

Two: This doesn't mean current oil wells will start filling up again. As far as I can tell, tectonic activity transports, in bulk, swaths of oil from very, very deep wells. So the oil they're drilling in Ukraine/Russia may be abiotic, but it's not connected to some bigger well. Just like any well, when it goes dry it will stay that way.

Three: Sure there are huge stores of oil somewhere deep underground, perhaps descendent of our planet's alloted share of the solar system's methane; but oil really, really deep under the ground is useless. The technology to drill down to these wells, much less the technology to find them (the Soviets found evidence of these wells, not an actual well) is not available or all that feasable.

Four: These wells are all in the Caspian basin, an area already known to have large energy reserves. Kansas might like to get their hands on some of this abiotic oil -- do you think they're going to find some under their lot of land? The evidence is circumstantial. The conventional explanation conflicts with some evidence. The Ukranian paper presents a theory that does not conflict with the evidence, but the paper doesn't present evidence for that theory.

Summary: Oil and other fuels of the ilk are being consumed at a rate that is growing exponentially. Even if the science of where the oil came from happens to be wrong, the replacement science still implies that there is not an infinite supply. Therefore, there's going to be growth until supplies hit a wall, and then the production will decrease: a rise, a peak and a fall.

Maybe I'm just afraid of death by pollution. If we do find some really huge well, then yeah, some other factor will crash civilization before energy shortages get their chance. Everything I just said is just stuff I noticed about the article, but those Russians really are drilling oil in an area most people wouldn't have thought to look.

My friend Thad toured a chemical plant with some older engineers he interned for a couple summers ago. As they were walking, his nose alerted him to some danger, and to his comment, one of the engineers said "The smell? Don't worry about the smell, that's the smell of money."