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Peak oil, deep oil and son of the evening star -- part I

SOME PEOPLE ARE just plain skeptical of the entire Peak Oil thesis. Here is an e-mail from a Whiskey & Gunpowder reader named Michael, location unknown:

"Sorry. Peak Oil is a scam to sucker investors like you into wasting money. Do a Google search for 'Peak Oil scam.' Your editors will never allow you to touch this. They make way too much money."

"Sorry right back at you, Michael. We at Agora Financial are not afraid to touch anything. The only rule around the office is that whatever we do, we are not allowed to scare the horses that some of the Baltimore police officers ride. So we will discuss the so-called "Peak Oil scam" in this issue of Whiskey & Gunpowder. And along the same lines as Michael's e-mail, a reader named Albert from South Carolina had this to say:

"Apart from the MASSIVE amount of oil of the oil sands of Canada, there is a constant stream of raw material to MAKE oil in this country. As a matter of fact, it is available to every country on the planet that is willing to make the investment. I am surprised that you are unaware of this information."

"Note to Albert. We are aware of everything. At Whiskey & Gunpowder, we never sleep. We only rest. If you want to know the news, then read the newspaper. If you want to understand the world, read Whiskey & Gunpowder. Nothing escapes our scrutiny. We are like Monty Python's proverbial Spanish Inquisition. And there are no accidents, comrade.

From the context of their e-mails, it appears that Michael and Albert are both referring to an idea that has made the rounds for many years, about how the deep crust of the Earth may hold untold quantities of oil and gas. The theory is that, at great depth, there are immense hydrocarbon resources just waiting for the driller's bit to find and deliver to the surface. It goes back to some scientific work that the Soviets performed in the 1930s, and more recently to the work of the late Thomas Gold, a former professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

Another reader named Noel, a retired college professor from Ohio, who as he put it "escaped with a pension," framed the point exactly:

"Most of us are familiar with the running-out-of-oil thing -- it's been around for 40 (or more) years. But little has been heard about the spontaneous regeneration theory. You are likely aware of it, but have not commented on it. It is propounded by a world-class Cornell University scientist [Gold], to the effect that oil was never formed by rotting plants and animals. [Instead, oil was formed] by reactions within the hot center of the Earth, which continue today. This was apparently put forth by Russian scientists some decades ago [Dimitri Mendeleev, see below]. I -- and many others -- would appreciate you commenting on this issue: is spontaneous regeneration real? If real, is it significant?[Gold] has had some earth-shaking scientific insights in the past. He has also whiffed his share of times, but is not one to be ignored...he has turned science on its head more than once. Do us a favor -- look into it and write it up! Thanks again for Whiskey -- it is quite different, and fun to read."

"Thank you, Noel, for your kind words. If you think that Whiskey & Gunpowder is fun to read, you should try writing it. Michael, Albert, and Noel are raising an important part of the Peak Oil debate, and a lot of great questions. First, let's take a look at the science.

Getting Down to Basics: Elemental Hydrogen

The first principle in all of this is that the most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen. (The late Frank Zappa used to say that the most abundant element in the universe was stupidity, but this gets away from the subject. We are discussing oil, not U.S. fiscal and monetary policy.)

This abundant hydrogen, goes the thinking behind what Noel referred to as "spontaneous regeneration," was the direct precursor for the petroleum that we find today in the crust of the Earth. The theory states that when our planet formed from primordial dust about 4.5 billion years ago, a large measure of elemental hydrogen was incorporated throughout its composition. Hold that thought, while I delve just a little bit into planetary geology, if not cosmology.

The sun is a big ball of (mostly) constantly fusing hydrogen. At its surface, the sun is exploding with the intensity of about a bazillion hydrogen bombs every second. (Somebody has surely figured out the exact number. For now, just assume it is a bazillion.) But the sun's own immense gravity keeps it all in some semblance of spherical balance, so all we receive here on Earth is the sun's light and heat radiation, plus certain other particles and waves.

The inner planets of the Solar System -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars -- are composed primarily of metals like iron and nickel and other forms of complex minerals and rock. (The mantle of the Earth is mostly olivine, in case you are wondering.) The outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune -- are what are called "gas giants," with substantial components of hydrogen making up their composition. (Forget about Pluto and Planet X, which are not relevant just now.) The cosmological theory is that, when the solar system was being formed, the gas from the inner regions was pulled by gravity inward toward the center to form the sun. Thus, the heavier matter, which did not get pulled inward, was left to form the inner planets that orbit the sun on the same planetary plane. The result is the four rocky inner planets, with their metal cores. The gas in the outer regions of the solar system was, over time, swept up by gravitational forces into the gas giants. Enough of this for now. If you want more, watch Star Trek.

So according to the theory that was referred to by Noel above, the retired professor from Ohio, a not insignificant amount of hydrogen was also incorporated into the formation of planet Earth. Over the intervening 4.5 billion years, this hydrogen has chemically reacted with metals and carbon, in various forms and at great depth within the Earth, to form methane gas and even more complex hydrocarbons, like oil. These volumes of gas and oil are supposed to have seeped upward into the continental crust over time, to where mankind now has accessed these oil and gas deposits by drilling. It is the Col. Drake thing at Titusville, although I know that some of our readers claim southern Ontario as the birthplace of the world's oil industry. That, too, is another story.

Carbide Hypothesis

Getting back to what Noel mentioned in his e-mail, the famous Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev, whose pioneering work led to the creation of the periodic table, was the first to propose what has been named the "Carbide hypothesis" to explain the origins of petroleum. Mendeleev's science makes a lot of sense, as far as it goes. His assumption is that deep within the Earth there are compounds called metal carbides, which react with water in the form of hydrothermal solutions. In the most basic case, iron carbide plus water reacts to form iron oxide (better known as "rust") plus acetylene, the well-known industrial gas.

The acetylene molecule is composed of two carbon atoms and two hydrogen atoms. The two carbon atoms are tightly connected by three powerful electron bonds, hence the rather high energy state of acetylene. (This is why people use acetylene for metal-cutting purposes. Many years ago, during one of my summer jobs, I worked as a welder and metal cutter. I know firsthand how hot acetylene can burn, particularly when a drop of molten steel falls down into your boot. Ouch! Still hurts, just to think about it. But I digress.) At elevated temperatures, such as are found deep within the Earth, acetylene polymerizes to form benzene and a complex mix of other "long-chain" and "aromatic" hydrocarbons. Presto, petroleum, goes the theory.

Fisher-Tropsch Hypothesis

Cornell's Gold referred favorably to the Mendeleev work, and also proposed the well-known "Fischer-Tropsch reaction" as an additional mechanism for the formation of complex hydrocarbon molecules at depth. The chemistry is pretty straightforward. Carbon dioxide and hydrogen react to form carbon monoxide and water vapor. Add more hydrogen to the carbon monoxide, and the reaction creates methane gas and water vapor. Again, presto, methane.

"Abiotic" Oil and Gas

Both of these chemical reactions, "metal carbide" and "Fisher-Tropsch," have been successfully demonstrated countless times under laboratory conditions. This type of chemistry is what backs up the claims by some people of the so-called "abiotic" origin of oil and gas. That is, goes the argument, oil and gas are not the highly refined organic remains of ancient life forms such as the well-known "dead dinosaurs." Instead, oil and gas are substances of almost primordial origins, rooted in the elemental hydrogen cloud out of which Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago.

This is to what Michael, Albert, and Noel are alluding in their e-mails. In essence, according to the abiotic theory of origins for oil and gas, they are asking whether or not mankind can have almost unlimited amounts of hydrocarbon resources, if the oil industry could or would just drill deep enough wells. It all sounds so darned good, but maybe we had better look into the properties of oil and gas and get into some of the science of geology.

Looking for Some Evidence

True to prediction, deep Earth actually does produce abiotic methane. You can detect methane gas, in minute but measurable trace quantities, discharging from the world's midocean ridges, which are connected by volcanic vents to the Earth's upper mantle. Methane gas also can be found venting from some volcanoes, which are a connection between the Earth's surface and the high-temperature zones within the Earth's deep crust, if not its upper mantle. And there is even some small amount of methane gas in some hard rock deep mine shafts. And I do not mean coal mines, which tend to accumulate gas that vents from the coal seams. I mean hard rock mines dug into the deepest, hardest, and oldest granites, gabbros, and metamorphic rock facies you can imagine. There are no "dead dinosaurs" in these rocks, so something else is going on.

Obviously, the methane from midocean ridges, volcanoes, and hard rock mine shafts has to come from somewhere. And at least some of the evidence is that it comes from "down there," from deep within the Earth. So no one is denying the chemical possibility of the existence of abiotic methane welling upward from within the Earth. The dispute is whether or not there is evidence that abiotic methane is, or has ever been, produced in sizable quantities. As with most things that are part of the oil business, you have to be ready to "think big." But at the risk of getting ahead of the story, the best evidence is that the amount of methane generated from deep sources within the Earth is exceedingly minor. It is certainly minor when compared with what one finds in what are considered commercial hydrocarbon deposits.

In addition, while there is some evidence of abiotic natural gas in the form of methane, there is next to no evidence to indicate the abiotic creation of the literally tens of thousands of complex hydrocarbon molecules that are found in crude oil. It is one thing to perform a "Fisher-Tropsch" transformation and turn carbon dioxide and hydrogen into water vapor and humble methane gas. It is quite another thing for the chemistry behind the "metal carbide" and "Fisher-Tropsch" reactions to occur on a massive scale, if not on a planetary scale, creating vast quantities of abiotic natural gas, let alone oil, that seeps upward from the Earth's mantle or deep crust.

A Little Bit of Stereo Chemistry

One good test to discriminate between an abiotic origin for hydrocarbon molecules, versus an organic origin ("dead dinosaurs," as noted above), gets into the field of stereo chemistry. If you took a decent high school biology class, at least before most U.S. high schools dropped such material from the curriculum because it took resources away from football programs, you may remember that most organic biological compounds are optically active.

That is, when you view optically active substances through a microscope, they tend to rotate a beam of polarized light. This has to do with a chemical concept called "chirality." Two molecules can have the exact same chemical composition, and include almost all other physical properties, but they are mirror images when it comes to the structure of the atoms that make up the molecules. The two mirror image compounds are called "enantiomers" of each other. Biological synthesis almost always forms compounds that are "left handed" or "levorotary," and which rotate polarized light to the left. Whereas abiotic synthesis tends to produce samples of organic molecules that are equally "levorotary" ("left-handed") or "dextrorotary" (that is, the latter substances rotate polarized light to the right). Got it?

So with this bit of chemistry as background, what do we find out in nature? If oil or gas were truly of abiotic origin, samples viewed under a microscope with polarized light would tend to be half levorotary and half dextrorotary, because that is what happens under conditions of abiotic origin. But that is not what we find. Almost every sample of oil and gas ever analyzed has demonstrated levorotary properties, a statistic that leans decidedly toward ancient biological origin. That is, "dead dinosaurs."

What about those samples from the midocean ridges, volcanoes, and deep mine shafts? They too are almost all levorotary, although, in fairness, there are a few samples that have surprisingly large amounts of "dextrorotary" molecules as well. What is this telling us? Probably that while some of the carbon compounds that come from the deep regions of the Earth's crust or upper mantle are abiotic, most are recycled carbon from the surface. The mechanism for recycling the carbon is most likely subduction of the Earth's crust (a key concept in the field of plate tectonics) or deep penetration by hydrothermal solutions that carry down organic matter from above.

Garnets and Diamonds

How deep into the Earth can material penetrate if it originated on or near the surface? By way of answer, there was a recent article in Science magazine, the official and well-respected publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, concerning garnet intrusions in diamonds. Diamonds are found in a type of geologic feature known as kimberlite pipes, named after a location in South Africa. These pipes are corridors of an utterly unique type of rock that cooled from a molten state, and which originated far down in the Earth's mantle. Some researchers have estimated the depth of origin of the kimberlite mantle as being near 150 miles below the Earth's surface, or dozens of miles below even the deepest portions of the Earth's crust. Yet as I mentioned above, some diamonds, which are a form of pure carbon, have small inclusions of garnet in them.

How did the garnets get there? What is going on? The geochemistry is complex, but the short version is that these garnets could only have originated from shallower crust that was pulled down deep into the Earth's mantle and incorporated into the mantle material that erupted through the kimberlite pipe.

So yes, if garnets can do it, then organic carbon from the surface of the Earth can also travel pretty deep into the mantle. And due to the dynamic nature of this wonderful Earth of ours, that material can also come back up, if you are patient -- but you have to be very patient. All kidding aside, the "carbon cycle" of the Earth's crust is measured in periods of hundreds of millions of years, and that is if nothing else occurs in the tectonic sequence to delay the process.

Of Time, Space and Stars

To give you a sense of the timing of geological as well as cosmological phenomena, let me note a recent news account that reported on something called GRB 060218. That is, on Feb. 18, 2006, NASA's Swift satellite, designed to detect gamma ray bursts (hence the "GRB" in the name), recorded a massive burst of high-energy gamma rays from a galaxy estimated to be 440 million light years away. Even as you read this, astronomers are turning their telescopes toward the host galaxy of the exploding star, and they expect to see the type of stellar brightening related to an accompanying supernova. A gamma ray burst of this scale occurs when the core of a massive star collapses. Astronomers believe collapsed star cores become black holes and produce focused beams that radiate from the stars' poles, which are detected as gamma ray bursts here on Earth.

My point for mentioning this is that the stellar explosion in this distant galaxy occurred, according to the news account and NASA analysis, 440 million years ago. This was when the Earth was in its transition between the Ordovician and Silurian Periods. So it was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away. And we are just observing it now.

Let me end Part I of this discussion of "Peak Oil, Deep Oil" by recalling some beautiful words, written by Longfellow in his masterpiece Song of Hiawatha. (Again, you may have studied this in high school, unless your school district cut out such frivolous literature programs because they took resources away from the football program.) The section entitled "The Son of the Evening Star" goes...

"Over it the Star of Evening
Melts and trembles through the purple,
Hangs suspended in the twilight.
No; it is a bead of wampum
On the robes of the Great Spirit
As he passes through the twilight,
Walks in silence through the heavens."

In Part II, we will discuss more details of the abiotic oil theories.

Until we meet again...

Byron W. King

Editorial Notes: Also see The “Abiotic Oil” Controversy by Richard Heinberg. A recent article states the case for examining abiotic oil theories: If hydrocarbons are renewable- then is "Peak Oil" a fraud?. Byron W. King has worked as a geologist in the exploration and production division of a major international oil company. He has followed developments in the oil and gas industry for almost three decades. He is currently a practicing attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For more of King's essays, see The Saga of Oil. King's essays appear in Whiskey & Gunpowder, an investment newsletter. -BA

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