Discovering oil

Bruce Bartlett
Posted: Jun 10, 2004 12:00 AM

 Predictably, the recent rise in oil prices has the usual doom-and-gloom crowd, which has consistently been wrong for 30 years, out saying once again that this proves we are running out of oil and that severe curbs on gasoline consumption must be imposed to preserve what little is left for future generations.  They need not worry.  There is growing evidence that oil is far more plentiful than we have been led to believe.

 The prevailing theory of the origin of oil is the dead dinosaur hypothesis and dates back to the 18th century.  Its originator was a Russian scientist named Mikhail Lomonosov, who put it this way in a 1757 paper, "Rock oil (petroleum) originates as tiny bodies of animals buried in the sediments which, under the influence of increased temperature and pressure acting during an unimaginably long period of time, transforms into rock oil."

 However, in the 1950s, Russian and Ukrainian scientists developed a new theory about petroleum's origins called the abiotic or abiogenic theory.  According to this view, oil is fundamentally inorganic and has no relationship to dead plant or animal life.  Rather, oil originates deep in the Earth's crust from inorganic material that is part of the planet's origin.

 In the words of geologist Vladimir Porfir'yev, "The overwhelming preponderance of geological evidence compels the conclusion that crude oil and natural gas have no intrinsic connection with biological matter originating near the surface of the Earth.  They are primordial materials which have erupted from great depths."

 For more than 50 years, Russian and Ukrainian scientists have successfully used the abiotic theory to find oil and natural gas.  For example, the Dnieper-Donets Basin has yielded a significant amount of oil and natural gas even though it is an area that conventional biological theories reject as unpromising.  A recent technical paper found that the results "confirm the scientific conclusions that the oil and natural gas found in?the Dnieper-Donets Basin are of deep, and abiotic, origin."

 As Russia has opened up since the fall of the Soviet Union and because it has become a large and growing factor in the international oil market, American scientists are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about and interested in the abiotic theory of petroleum.  Recently, the National Academy of Sciences published a paper on the topic.  The Gas Research Institute has financed exploration based on abiotic theories, with encouraging results.  And the American Association of Petroleum Geologists has taken an interest in the subject as well.

 The leading supporter of the abiotic theory in the U.S. is Prof. Thomas Gold of Cornell.  His 1999 book, "The Deep Hot Biosphere" (Springer-Verlag) is a thorough discussion of the issues.  It is based in part on research financed by the U.S. Geological Survey.  Among prominent scientists whose work supports the abiotic theory are Jean Whelan of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Mahlon Kennicutt of Texas A&M University, and J.F Kenny of the Gas Resources Corporation.

 Interestingly, economic research also implicitly supports abiotic theory.  A leading researcher in this regard is Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research and formerly chief energy economist for DRI-WEFA.

 In a new paper, Lynch debunks a common theory called the Hubbert Curve, which postulates that the yield of oil fields is inherently limited.  The problem, as Lynch points out, is that actual experience in many instances contradicts the Hubbert theory.  Its primary flaw is that it views geology as the sole factor in oil discovery, recovery and depletion.  In fact, oil prices, government policy and technology play critical roles.  But the evidence he presents of oil fields that yielded far more than the Hubbert Curve predicts is consistent with the abiotic theory, which says that oil fields can be refilled from sources well below those in which production now takes place.

 Finally, it is important to remember that improving technology improves the oil situation regardless of the theory of its origins.  A study last year by Cambridge Energy Research Associates found that five emerging technologies--remote sensing, visualization, intelligent drilling and completions, automation, and data integration--will greatly improve the ability of energy companies to increase their drilling success rate, better manage reserves, and operate more efficiently.

 William Severns, the study's leader, explained, "With these capabilities, companies may be able to increase the amount of oil and natural gas recovered in a given field by 2 percent to 7 percent, reduce lifting costs by 10 percent to 25 percent, and increase production rates by 2 percent to 4 percent."

 Of course, higher prices also make known deposits of oil that were previously too costly to exploit viable economically, as well as reducing demand.  Consequently, it is impossible to ever literally run out of oil.  The possibility should not be a factor in the energy debate.