About 80 miles off of the coast of Louisiana lies a mostly submerged mountain, the top of which is known as Eugene Island. The portion underwater is an eerie-looking, sloping tower jutting up from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, with deep fissures and perpendicular faults which spontaneously spew natural gas. A significant reservoir of crude oil was discovered nearby in the late ’60s, and by 1970, a platform named Eugene 330 was busily producing about 15,000 barrels a day of high-quality crude oil.
By the late ’80s, the platform’s production had slipped to less than 4,000 barrels per day, and was considered pumped out. Done. Suddenly, in 1990, production soared back to 15,000 barrels a day, and the reserves which had been estimated at 60 million barrels in the ’70s, were recalculated at 400 million barrels. Interestingly, the measured geological age of the new oil was quantifiably different than the oil pumped in the ’70s.
Analysis of seismic recordings 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.
Similar results were seen at other Gulf of Mexico oil wells. Similar results were found in the Cook Inlet oil fields in Alaska. Similar results were found in oil fields in Uzbekistan. Similarly in the Middle East, where oil exploration and extraction have been under way for at least the last 20 years, known reserves have doubled. Currently there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 680 billion barrels of Middle East reserve oil.
Creating that much oil would take a big pile of dead dinosaurs and fermenting prehistoric plants. Could there be another source for crude oil?
An intriguing theory now permeating oil company research staffs suggests that crude oil may actually be a natural inorganic product, not a stepchild of unfathomable time and organic degradation. The theory suggests there may be huge, yet-to-be-discovered reserves of oil at depths that dwarf current world estimates.
The theory is simple: Crude oil forms as a natural inorganic process which occurs between the mantle and the crust, somewhere between 5 and 20 miles deep. The proposed mechanism is as follows:
- Methane (CH4) is a common molecule found in quantity throughout our solar system – huge concentrations exist at great depth in the Earth.
- At the mantle-crust interface, roughly 20,000 feet beneath the surface, rapidly rising streams of compressed methane-based gasses hit pockets of high temperature causing the condensation of heavier hydrocarbons. The product of this condensation is commonly known as crude oil.
- Some compressed methane-based gasses migrate into pockets and reservoirs we extract as “natural gas.”
- In the geologically “cooler,” more tectonically stable regions around the globe, the crude oil pools into reservoirs.
- In the “hotter,” more volcanic and tectonically active areas, the oil and natural gas continue to condense and eventually to oxidize, producing carbon dioxide and steam, which exits from active volcanoes.
- Periodically, depending on variations of geology and Earth movement, oil seeps to the surface in quantity, creating the vast oil-sand deposits of Canada and Venezuela, or the continual seeps found beneath the Gulf of Mexico and Uzbekistan.
- Periodically, depending on variations of geology, the vast, deep pools of oil break free and replenish existing known reserves of oil.
There are a number of observations across the oil-producing regions of the globe that support this theory, and the list of proponents begins with Mendelev (who created the periodic table of elements) and includes Dr. Thomas Gold (founding director of Cornell University Center for Radiophysics and Space Research) and Dr. J.F. Kenney of Gas Resources Corporations, Houston, Texas.
In his 1999 book, “The Deep Hot Biosphere,” Dr. Gold presents compelling evidence for inorganic oil formation. He notes that geologic structures where oil is found all correspond to “deep earth” formations, not the haphazard depositions we find with sedimentary rock, associated fossils or even current surface life.
He also notes that oil extracted from varying depths from the same oil field have the same chemistry – oil chemistry does not vary as fossils vary with increasing depth. Also interesting is the fact that oil is found in huge quantities among geographic formations where assays of prehistoric life are not sufficient to produce the existing reservoirs of oil. Where then did it come from?
Another interesting fact is that every oil field throughout the world has outgassing helium. Helium is so often present in oil fields that helium detectors are used as oil-prospecting tools. Helium is an inert gas known to be a fundamental product of the radiological decay or uranium and thorium, identified in quantity at great depths below the surface of the earth, 200 and more miles below. It is not found in meaningful quantities in areas that are not producing methane, oil or natural gas. It is not a member of the dozen or so common elements associated with life. It is found throughout the solar system as a thoroughly inorganic product.
Even more intriguing is evidence that several oil reservoirs around the globe are refilling themselves, such as the Eugene Island reservoir – not from the sides, as would be expected from cocurrent organic reservoirs, but from the bottom up.
Dr. Gold strongly believes that oil is a “renewable, primordial soup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures. As this substance migrates toward the surface, it is attached by bacteria, making it appear to have an organic origin dating back to the dinosaurs.”
Smaller oil companies and innovative teams are using this theory to justify deep oil drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, among other locations, with some success. Dr. Kenney is on record predicting that parts of Siberia contain a deep reservoir of oil equal to or exceeding that already discovered in the Middle East.
Could this be true?
In August 2002, in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US),” Dr. Kenney published a paper, which had a partial title of “The genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum.” Dr. Kenney and three Russian coauthors conclude:
The Hydrogen-Carbon system does not spontaneously evolve hydrocarbons at pressures less than 30 Kbar, even in the most favorable environment. The H-C system evolves hydrocarbons under pressures found in the mantle of the Earth and at temperatures consistent with that environment.
He was quoted as stating that “competent physicists, chemists, chemical engineers and men knowledgeable of thermodynamics have known that natural petroleum does not evolve from biological materials since the last quarter of the 19th century.”
Deeply entrenched in our culture is the belief that at some point in the relatively near future we will see the last working pump on the last functioning oil well screech and rattle, and that will be that. The end of the Age of Oil. And unless we find another source of cheap energy, the world will rapidly become a much darker and dangerous place.
If Dr. Gold and Dr. Kenney are correct, this “the end of the world as we know it” scenario simply won’t happen. Think about it … while not inexhaustible, deep Earth reserves of inorganic crude oil and commercially feasible extraction would provide the world with generations of low-cost fuel. Dr. Gold has been quoted saying that current worldwide reserves of crude oil could be off by a factor of over 100.
A Hedberg Conference, sponsored by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, was scheduled to discuss and publicly debate this issue. Papers were solicited from interested academics and professionals. The conference was scheduled to begin June 9, 2003, but was canceled at the last minute. A new date has yet to be set.
Chris Bennett manages an environmental engineering division for a West Coast technology firm. He and his wife of 26 years make their home on the San Francisco Bay.