The Source of Oil – Is it Biotic or Abiotic?

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Drilling for Oil

The origin of oil has been the subject of an extended debate since its founding in the mid-19th century. Some professionals believe that oil is primordial – that it dates back to Earth’s origin – and thus was made through an inorganic process. This thesis is characterized as the abiotic (also called abiogenic or inorganic) theory. Others argue that oil was produced from the decay of living organisms (primarily oceanic plankton) that proliferated millions of years ago during relatively brief periods of global warming and were subsequently buried under ocean sediment in fortuitous circumstances. This view describes the biotic view of oil.

During the latter half of the 20th century, largely due to advances in geophysics and geochemistry, the vast majority of scientists have lined up on the side of the biotic theory. A small group of scientists, mostly Russians and a small minority of Western scientists (notably Cornell University physicist Thomas Gold), were committed to the abiotic theory. Gold’s research work argued that hydrocarbons existed at the time of our solar system’s formation and that they are known to be abundant on other planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and some of their moons) where no life is presumed to have existed in the past.

Implications of Biotic Oil Theory

Oil companies have used the biotic theory as the practical basis for their successful exploration efforts over the past few decades. If there are vast untapped deep pools of hydrocarbons refilling the reservoirs that oil producers drill into, operational experience suggest that appears to make little difference to actual production. The industry’s tens of thousands of oil and gas fields around the world are observed to deplete and refilling (which is indeed very rarely observed) is not occurring at a commercially significant scale.

Implications of Abiotic Oil Theory

The abiotic theory suggests that there are virtually limitless pools of liquid primordial hydrocarbons at great depths in the Earth. These pools slowly replenish the reservoirs that conventional oil drillers tap. The abiotic theorists suggest that conventional drillers, constrained by an incorrect theory, ignore many sites where deep, primordial pools of oil accumulate; if only they would drill in the right places, they would discover much more oil than they are finding now. However, thus far tests of this claim have proven inconclusive. Even if the abiotic theory eventually proves to be partially or wholly scientifically valid, it may have little or no practical consequence in terms of oil depletion and the imminent global oil production peak.

Empirical Evidence of Abotic Oil

Abiotic theorists often point out evidence of fields refilling as support it. The most frequently quoted example is Eugene Island, located on the tip of a mostly submerged mountain that lies approximately 80 miles off of the coast of Louisiana. A significant reservoir of crude oil was discovered nearby in the late ’60s. By 1970 the Eugene 330 platform was producing about 5,000 barrels a day of high-quality crude oil. By the late ’1980s, the Eugene 330′s production had slipped to less than 4,000 barrels per day and was generally considered to be declining. In 1990 oil production suddenly soared back to 15,000 barrels a day, and the reserves which had been estimated at 60 million barrels in the ’1970s, were recalculated at 400 million barrels. Most interestingly, the measured geological age of the new oil was significantly different than the oil pumped in the ’1970s. Analysis of seismic recordings has revealed the presence of a “deep fault” at the base of the Eugene Island reservoir which was gushing up a river of oil from some deeper and previously unknown source.

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