Abiotic Oil a Theory Worth Exploring

Oil may not be formed the way we think it is.

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It's our nature to sort, divide, and classify. We label ourselves to identify political leanings, religious beliefs, the food we enjoy, and the sports teams we cheer. The oil industry too has its own distinct labels which include the "Peak Oil" theorists, those who believe the world is fast depleting the finite supply of fossil fuel; and the pragmatists, those who recognize that engineering and technological advances in oil drilling and extraction continuously identify new reserves that make oil plentiful.

And there's a third group you may not know. These people are deeply interested in oil and its origins, but their advocacy of "abiotic theory" has many dismissing them as heretics, frauds, or idealists. They hold that oil can be derived from hydrocarbons that existed eons ago in massive pools deep within the earth's core. That source of hydrocarbons seeps up through the earth's layers and slowly replenishes oil sources. In other words, it turns the fossil-fuel paradigm upside down.   

[Read: How Much Oil is There?]

Perhaps the breakthrough for this theory came when Chris Cooper's story appeared April 16, 1999, in The Wall Street Journal about an oil field called Eugene Island. Here's an excerpt:

Production at the oil field, deep in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, was supposed to have declined years ago. And for a while, it behaved like any normal field: Following its 1973 discovery, Eugene Island 330's output peaked at about 15,000 barrels a day. By 1989, production had slowed to about 4,000 barrels a day.

Then suddenly—some say almost inexplicably—Eugene Island's fortunes reversed. The field, operated by PennzEnergy Co., is now producing 13,000 barrels a day, and probable reserves have rocketed to more than 400 million barrels from 60 million. Stranger still, scientists studying the field say the crude coming out of the pipe is of a geological age quite different from the oil that gushed 10 years ago.

According to Cooper,

Thomas Gold, a respected astronomer and professor emeritus at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has held for years that oil is actually a renewable, primordial syrup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures. As this substance migrates toward the surface, it is attacked by bacteria, making it appear to have an organic origin dating back to the dinosaurs, he says.

All of which has led some scientists to a radical theory: Eugene Island is rapidly refilling itself, perhaps from some continuous source miles below the Earth's surface. That, they say, raises the tantalizing possibility that oil may not be the limited resource it is assumed to be.

More recently, Forbes presented a similar discussion. In 2008 it reported a group of Russian and Ukrainian scientists say that oil and gas don't come from fossils; they're synthesized deep within the earth's mantle by heat, pressure, and other purely chemical means, before gradually rising to the surface. Under the so-called abiotic theory of oil, finding all the energy we need is just a matter of looking beyond the traditional basins where fossils might have accumulated.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should offshore drilling be expanded?]

The idea that oil comes from fossils "is a myth" that needs changing according to petroleum engineer Vladimir Kutcherov, speaking at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. "All kinds of rocks could have oil and gas deposits."

Alexander Kitchka of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences estimates that 60 percent of the content of all oil is abiotic in origin and not from fossil fuels. He says companies should drill deeper to find it.

Is abiotic theory the real deal? Is Eugene Island "Exhibit A?"  Look how long it's taken for this conversation to reach a tipping point!

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