Abiotic Oil: Real(ish)Things That Don’t Matter, Part Deux

Guest Seinfeld routine by David Middleton

In part one of this series, we looked at Peak Oil and its irrelevance to energy production. In Part Deux, we will look at “abiotic oil,” a real(ish) thing that really doesn’t matter outside of academic discussions and SyFy blogs.

A note on terminology

Some refer to this as “abiogenic oil.” This is not a useful term because all oil is abiogenic. The generally accepted theory of petroleum formation doesn’t state that it is a biogenic process. I discussed this in detail in a 2017 post. I don’t intend to restate it here.

In this post, “abiotic oil” refers to petroleum formed by processes that do not rely on biological source material. The carbon in “abiotic oil” must be inorganic.

A real example of abiotic “oil”

The Lost City Hydrothermal Field is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, about 15 km (~9 mi) west of the spreading center, in water depths ranging from 750-900 m (~2,500-3,000′) (Kelley et al., 2005).

Figure 1. Lost City location map. (University of Washington)

The Lost City Hydrothermal Field appears to be a genuine example of abiotic oil, or at least abiotic oil-like material formed by the Fischer-Tropsch process.

Deep-ocean vents are a source of oil and gas
Hydrocarbons bubble up from the mid-Atlantic’s Lost City.

Rachel Courtland

Undersea thermal vents can yield unexpected bounty: natural gas and the building blocks of oil products. In a new analysis of Lost City, a hydrothermal field in the mid-Atlantic, researchers have found that these organic molecules are being created through inorganic processes, rather than the more typical decomposition of once-living material.
Most of the planet’s oil and natural gas deposits were created when decomposing biological matter is ‘cooked’ in high temperatures underground. But non-biological hydrocarbons have also been found deep inside the Earth, where chemical processes create the molecules from inorganic sources such as rock.


Among other measurements, the team analysed the amount of carbon-13 in methane, which contains one carbon atom, and in hydrocarbons containing two, three, and four carbon atoms. As the number of carbon atoms rose, the concentration of carbon-13 fell — the opposite trend to that seen in biologically derived hydrocarbons.

Instead, the pattern of isotopes suggest that a chemical process called the Fischer-Tropsch process is at work in Lost City, creating bigger and bigger hydrocarbons in the hydrogen-rich environment. Although the concentrations were too low to detect without a filter, small amounts of larger hydrocarbons such as kerosene and octane may also be produced.
The team also found that the methane in Lost City contained no carbon-14, suggesting the carbon source for the hydrocarbons comes from within the mantle, far away from organisms that might have had contact with the global carbon cycle at the surface.



Traces of kerosene and octane demonstrate that at least some of the components of crude oil can be formed naturally by the Fischer-Tropsch process (Proskurowski et al., 2008).

A close, but no cigar, example of abiotic oil

The Pescadero and Guyamas Basins are sediment-filled depressions respectively at the southern end and in central portion of the Gulf of California (AKA Vermilion Sea, Sea of Cortez). Oil-like material has been associated with hydrothermal vents in both of these basins.

Figure 2. Guaymas and Pescadero Basins and Alarcón and East Pacific Rises plotted on sediment thickness map ( Whittaker et al., 2013)

The Guaymas and Pescadero Basins are more consistent with the conventional theory of petroleum formation than the abiotic oil hypothesis.

June 2, 2015

MBARI researchers discover deepest known high-temperature hydrothermal vents in Pacific Ocean

In spring 2015, MBARI researchers discovered a large, previously unknown field of hydrothermal vents in the Gulf of California, about 150 kilometers (100 miles) east of La Paz, Mexico. Lying more than 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) below the surface, the Pescadero Basin vents are the deepest high-temperature hydrothermal vents ever observed in or around the Pacific Ocean. They are also the only vents in the Pacific known to emit superheated fluids rich in both carbonate minerals and hydrocarbons. The vents have been colonized by dense communities of tubeworms and other animals unlike any other known vent communities in the in the eastern Pacific.


Reflecting on the discovery, Clague commented, “Before the AUV survey of Pescadero Basin, all we knew was that this area was really deep and filled with sediment. I was hoping to find a few outcrops of lava on the seafloor. But we got lucky. The vent field was right on the edge of our survey area, along a fault at the western edge of the basin.”


The AUV and ROV dives showed that the new field extends for at least 400 meters (one quarter mile) along this fault. Within this area the researchers found at least three active hydrothermal chimneys up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall, as well as dozens of low mounds that are most likely collapsed chimneys.

After his ROV dive, Clague noted, “This site was not at all what I was expecting.” For one thing, the fragments of chimneys that the ROV brought back to the surface were quite different from those collected at other vents in the area. The Pescadero chimneys consisted entirely of light-colored carbonate minerals instead of the dark sulfide minerals that are abundant in hydrothermal chimneys elsewhere in the Gulf.
The Pescadero Basin is only the second place in the world where carbonate chimneys (instead of ones made primarily of sulfides) have been found in the deep sea. The other known location is the “Lost City” vent field in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at a spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The geologists also noticed that their rock samples smelled like diesel. They hypothesize that hot hydrothermal fluids migrating upward through the thick sediments of the Pescadero Basin “cook” organic matter in the sediment, converting it into petroleum-like hydrocarbons—a process that has been observed at several other vents in the Pacific. Hydrocarbons may provide nutrition for the unusual microbes that thrive at these vents.



The “oil” of the Guayamas Basin is very young and formed very quickly…

Hydrothermal oil of Guaymas Basin and implications for petroleum formation mechanisms


*Refineria de Petroleo Concon, Casilla 242, Concon, Chile
†Petroleum Research Group, College of Oceanography, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

PETROLEUM-LIKE hydrocarbons have been detected in thermally altered Recent sediments of Guaymas Basin and petroleum-like hydrocarbon impregnations were found in hydrothermal mounds on the sea floor and associated with hydrothermal vent emissions. Here we report the evaluation of such a hydrothermal oil, which we find to be similar to conventionally exploited crude oils. Its young geological age (< 5,000 yr, 14C)  indicates that a significant fraction of the organic carbon in the oil has completed the transformation from biomass to migrating oil in less than 5,000 years, thus limiting the oil generation, explusion and migration processes to a geologically short timescale. We estimate the generation potential of such hydrothermal oil and discuss its implications to our understanding of the petroleum generation, expulsion and migration mechanisms.


The Guaymas and Pescadero Basins are “fast” hydrocarbon kitchens and a pretty decent window into how oil petroleum may actually form.

How do we know that Abiotic Oil doesn’t matter?

We’ll revisit the Eugene Island 330 (EI 330) oilfield to explain why Abiotic Oil doesn’t matter. The reservoir “rocks” in the EI 330 field were deposited during the Calabrian Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch (~0.75 to 1.5 Ma), they are very “young.”

Figure 3. Eugene Island 330 type log. (Holland et al., 1999)

The oil in EI 330’s Pleistocene reservoirs was not sourced from the Pleistocene shale in the field. It is organic-poor, highly oxidized and contains “predominantly terrestrial kerogen” (Holland et. al., 1999). The oil exhibits clear indications of long vertical migration (Holland et. al., 1999) The most likely source rock is the Jurassic Smackover carbonate (Losh et al., 2002). There are no wells anywhere near EI 330 that have drilled deep enough to test the Smackover. The deepest well in the field didn’t even reach the Pliocene. It encountered hard pressure in the Lower Pleistocene at depth of about 13,500′. The Smackover formation was probably at a depth of about 16,000′ when the oil was formed and expelled (Holland et al., 1999); however rapid sedimentation and subsidence of the basin during the Pleistocene currently puts the Smackover at a depth of nearly 50,000′ (Losh et al., 2002).

Unlike the Williston Basin or even East Texas Salt Basin, where source rocks can be directly tied to oil in reservoir rocks. The presumed source rocks in most of the Gulf of Mexico are too deep to drill.

Figure 4. Generalized Northern Gulf of Mexico cross section showing major source and reservoir sequences. (Galloway, 2014)

This is where the story gets “interesting.”

COULD it be that many of the world’s oil fields are refilling themselves at nearly the same rate they are being drained by an energy-hungry world?

A geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts says she believes that hitherto undetected gas and oil reservoirs lying at very great depths within the earth’s crust could stave off the inevitable oil depletion much longer than many experts have estimated.

The scientist, Dr. Jean K. Whelan, whose research is part of a $2 million Department of Energy exploration program in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, has found evidence of differences in the composition of oil over periods of time as it flows from greater to shallower depths. By gauging degradative chemical changes in the oil resulting from action by oil-eating bacteria, she infers that oil is moving in quite rapid spurts from great depths to reservoirs closer to the surface.

Skeptics of Dr. Whelan’s hypothesis acknowledge that oil is almost certainly flowing into certain reservoirs from somewhere, but say her explanation remains to be proved, as does the exact extent of the phenomenon.

A site in the gulf of particular interest to the Pennzoil Exploration and Production Company and several independent scientific teams, including Dr. Whelan’s group, is Eugene Island Block 330, which is not an island but a patch of sea floor 700 feet beneath the water’s surface. Discovered in 1972, an oil reservoir some 6,000 feet beneath Eugene Island 330 is one of the world’s most productive oil sources; it has yielded more than one billion barrels, or 42 billion gallons, and is still going strong.


New York Times, 26 Sept. 1995

The New York Times article got at least one thing very wrong. The cumulative oil production at the end of 1995 was only a bit over 340 million bbl. Even if you count the gas, it was only 608 million BOE (barrels oil equivalent). And, despite evidence that oil was still migrating into the EI 330 reservoirs (Nunn et al., 1996) there was no evidence that the field was “refilling [itself] at nearly the same rate [it was] being drained.”

Figure 5. Eugene Island 330 Field oil, gas and water production rates 1972-2018. (David Middleton, data from BOEM)

Eugene Island 330 was clearly not “refilling [itself] at nearly the same rate [it was] being drained.”

Dr. Whelan was referring to oil migrating from deep organic-rich Jurassic source rocks… However, “The mystery of Eugene Island 330” quickly became evidence for Thomas Gold’s unfounded and generally falsified hypothesis…

The deep-seated oil source at Eugene Island strongly supports T. Gold’s theory about The Deep Hot Biosphere. Gold holds:

“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.”

Art Bell’s Coast to Coast Science Frontiers Online, Jul-Aug 1999

Setting aside the extensive evidence correlating Pleistocene, Pliocene and Miocene reservoir “rocks” in the Gulf of Mexico to deeper Lower Tertiary, Cretaceous and Jurassic source rocks in and around the Gulf (Hood et al., 2002), what if those weren’t the source rocks? What if the oil was actually migrating up from the lower crust or mantle?

Figure 6. Eugene Island 330 north-south cross section and OI Sand structure map (Losh et al., 2002). Migration pathway up “A Fault” is highlighted and a hypothetical source rock formation has been added. It is interpreted that the Jurassic source rocks were at a depth of about 12,000 m when the oil was formed, expelled and began its migration up to the Pleistocene reservoir rocks.
Figure 7. Eugene Island 330 north-south cross section and OI Sand structure map (Losh et al., 2002). Migration pathway up “A Fault” is highlighted and a hypothetical source rock formation has been added. This is what it would look like if the oil had migrated from the lower crust or mantle at depths >35 km.

The results are the same.

It doesn’t really matter where the oil came from. It has to be produced from economically viable accumulations. The accumulations have to have a sufficient volume to justify the costs of drilling the wells, installing the platform, pipelines and all of the other necessary infrastructure. The accumulation also has to produce at a sufficient rate to cover the costs of operating the wells, platforms, pipelines, etc.

However, the volume of oil and the production rate do not have to cover the “energy invested” in everything from drilling the wells, to installing the platform, building the drilling rigs, workboats or growing the food to feed the people working on the drilling rigs and production platforms.

To be continued

Part Trois will address the real(ish) nature of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) and its Seinfeldian position among irrelevant things.


Browne, Malcolm W. “Geochemist Says Oil FieldsMay Be Refilled Naturally.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Sept. 1995, www.nytimes.com/1995/09/26/science/geochemist-says-oil-fieldsmay-be-refilled-naturally.html?ref=oembed.

Corliss, William R. “The Mystery of Eugene Island 330.” Science Frontiers Online. No. 124: Jul-Aug 1999. www.science-frontiers.com/sf124/sf124p10.htm.

Courtland, Rachel. “Deep-Ocean Vents Are a Source of Oil and Gas.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 31 Jan. 2008, www.nature.com/news/2008/080131/full/news.2008.542.html#B1.

Didyk, Borys M., and Bernd R. T. Simoneit. “Hydrothermal Oil of Guaymas Basin and Implications for Petroleum Formation Mechanisms.” Nature, vol. 342, no. 6245, 1989, pp. 65–69., doi:10.1038/342065a0.

Fulton-Bennett, Kim, and Meilina Dalit. “New Study Challenges Prevailing Theory about How Deep-Sea Vents Are Colonized.” MBARI, 5 Sept. 2017, www.mbari.org/new-study-challenges-prevailing-theory-about-how-deep-sea-vents-are-colonized/.

Fulton-Bennett, Kim, and Jenny Paduan. “MBARI Researchers Discover Deepest Known High-Temperature Hydrothermal Vents in Pacific Ocean.” MBARI, 10 Sept. 2018, www.mbari.org/mbari-researchers-discover-deepest-known-high-temperature-hydrothermal-vents-in-pacific-ocean/.

Galloway, William E., et al. “Gulf of Mexico.” GEO ExPro, 21 Jan. 2014, www.geoexpro.com/articles/2009/03/gulf-of-mexico.

Hines, Sandra. “Lost City Pumps Life-Essential Chemicals at Rates Unseen at Typical Black Smokers.” UW News, University of Washington, 31 Jan. 2008, www.washington.edu/news/2008/01/31/lost-city-pumps-life-essential-chemicals-at-rates-unseen-at-typical-black-smokers/.

Hood, K. C., L. M. Wenger, O. P. Gross, and S. C. Harrison, 2002, “Hydrocarbon systems analysis of the northern Gulf of Mexico: Delineation of hydrocarbon migration pathways using seeps and seismic imaging, in Surface exploration case histories: Applications of geochemistry, magnetics, and remote sensing,” D. Schumacher and L. A. LeSchack, eds., AAPG Studies in Geology No. 48 and SEG Geophysical References Series No. 11, p. 25–40.

Holland, David S, et al. “Eugene Island Block 330 Field–U.S.A. Offshore Louisiana.” Search and Discovery Article #20003, AAPG, 1999, www.searchanddiscovery.com/documents/97015/eugene.htm. Published in AAPG Treatise of Petroleum Geology, Atlas of Oil and Gas Feilds, Structural Traps III, p. 103-143; adapted for online presentation

Kelley, D. S. “A Serpentinite-Hosted Ecosystem: The Lost City Hydrothermal Field.” Science, vol. 307, no. 5714, 2005, pp. 1428–1434., doi:10.1126/science.1102556.

Losh, Steven, et al. “Reservoir Fluids and Their Migration into the South Eugene Island Block 330 Reservoirs, Offshore Louisiana.” AAPG Bulletin, vol. 86, 2002, pp. 1463–1488., doi:10.1306/61eedcce-173e-11d7-8645000102c1865d.

Middleton, David. “Oil – Where Did It Come from?” Watts Up With That?, 18 Feb. 2017, wattsupwiththat.com/2017/02/18/oil-where-did-it-come-from/.

Nunn, J.A. & Roberts, S.J. & Cathles, Lawrence & Anderson, Roger. (1996). “Fluid migration in the Eugene Island block 330 area, offshore Louisiana”. AAPG Bulletin – AAPG BULL. 5.

Proskurowski, G., et al. “Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production at Lost City Hydrothermal Field.” Science, vol. 319, no. 5863, 2008, pp. 604–607., doi:10.1126/science.1151194.

St. C. Kendall, Christopher G, et al. “World Source Rock Potential through Geological Time: A Function of Basin Restriction, Nutrient Level, Sedimentation Rate, and Sea-Level Rise.” Search and Discovery Article #40472, AAPG, 30 Nov. 2009, www.searchanddiscovery.com/pdfz/documents/2009/40472kendall/ndx_kendall.pdf.html. Adapted from oral presentation at AAPG Annual Convention, Denver, Colorado, June 7-10, 2009 Please refer to companion article, “The Giant Oil Field Evaporite Association: A Function of the Wilson Cycle, Climate, Basin Position and Sea Level,”

Whittaker, Joanne M., et al. “Global Sediment Thickness Data Set Updated for the Australian-Antarctic Southern Ocean.” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, vol. 14, no. 8, 2013, pp. 3297–3305., doi:10.1002/ggge.20181.

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April 23, 2019 2:46 pm

The interest in abiotic oil never made sense to me. The evidence is weak. But even if there were abiotic production, it would have to be a very slow process, else we’d be flooded. So there is no sense in which abiotic oil would be renewable.

Phil R
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 5:59 pm

Kinda like De Beers and diamonds…doh! 🙂

Wind and solar is the conspiracy to maintain high oil prices.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 23, 2019 3:03 pm

Suffice it to say Nick, despite your ‘informed’ opinion on everything, you really don’t know much about anything.

John F. Hultquist
Reply to  HotScot
April 23, 2019 7:39 pm

When you call me that, smile!” [The Virginian, as he lays a pistol on the table]

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 23, 2019 3:56 pm

Gold gave a guest lecture in a class I took in college and something he emphasized was that abiotic CH4 is an abundant primordial gas. We know this now more than ever and if we could harvest the methane on Titan, we would have more than enough gas to last longer than the lifetime of any prior civilization on Earth.

The fact that CH4 has about the same molecular mass as H2O and Earth has a lot of water, it only makes senses that there should be significant primordial CH4 somewhere. We now know that there’s about as much water dissolved in the mantle as there is in the oceans. If there were only a few ppm of CH4 dissolved in the mantle that over time bubbled up to the surface and was cooked into longer chain hydrocarbons as it co-mingles with organic carbon, there would be a lot more oil then is currently known and it offers a better explanation for the wide variability in biological markers seen across the many sources of crude and gas around the world.

It also suggests the possibility of very deep deposits, below where contamination from biological carbon would occur and where we currently don’t even bother looking. If such deposits exist, then abiotic oil does matter.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 4:26 pm

All long chain hydrocarbons pumped from the ground start out as methane, so CH4 is oil. I don’t want a pony or a unicorn, I just want to feed the hundreds of ponies in my SUV.

CH4 is natural gas and we can even use it to power cars. We have so much, it ends up being flared off and wasted, rather than being compressed and sold as LNG to Japan or even being turned into electricity with small natural gas powered generators at the well heads.

Would a gas engine driving a generator (or a fuel cell) running on the natural gas leaving a typical well head produce more electricity than a windmill occupying the same footprint?

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 23, 2019 4:49 pm

“All long chain hydrocarbons pumped from the ground start out as methane”

No, it’s the other way around, methane starts out as long-chain hydrocarbon.

Don K
Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 12:12 am

In agreement with David and tty, petroleum geologists have long used the concept of an “Oil Window” as part of a quick screen as to whether a given geology is likely to produce petroleum. Simplistically, the idea is that organic material is originally deposited as plant material because plants are a lot more common than animals. If the material (collectively “kerogen”) is cooked for a while it breaks down into shorter chains (petroleum). Cook it longer or hotter and it breaks down further — eventually ending up as Methane (natural gas). If the thermal history of a region is known, an educated guess can be made as to whether any hydrocarbons found are going to be solids, liquids or gases.

A little time with a search engine will produce lots of more complete and better explanations.

It has long seemed to me that the oil window concept does not bode well for Gold’s theory of deep oil. If there’s one thing we’re pretty sure about the deep Earth it’s that it is HOT down there. I don’t have any problem with the notion that there are abiotic hydrocarbons trapped down there. AFAICS, there could well be. Maybe a lot of them, But because of the heat, I should think that if they exist, most of them are likely going to be in the form of Methane, not longer chain liquid hydrocarbons.

steve case
Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 4:10 am

Would a gas engine driving a generator (or a fuel cell) running on the natural gas leaving a typical well head produce more electricity than a windmill occupying the same footprint?

Would it produce 24/7/365 is the question.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 9:26 am

Anaerobic decomposition of biomass produces methane. Under sufficient temperatures and very high pressures, methane can be reformed into longer chain hydrocarbons without a catalyst, although catalysts like Platinum do occur in nature. Surely, the amino acids and proteins comprising biomass would largely decompose before becoming crude. Besides, didn’t the vast majority of biomass sequestered and turned into oil and gas start out as single cell organisms that fell to the bottom of the ocean, became methane ices which were then were subducted by tectonic action? It seems to me that there aren’t sufficient geological processes to bury surface biomass deep enough and fast enough to become oil and gas thousands of feet underground and instead, this biomass becomes coal relatively close to the surface.

Another Paul
Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 10:08 am

“Would a gas engine driving a generator (or a fuel cell) running on the natural gas…”

I think Honeywell tried to do that with a small turbine engine. The company I worked for did the power electronics for it. IIRC, the turbine didn’t last long? And it didn’t like some SO? kinda things in the flare gas. Fun project.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 10:36 am

I suspect the various contaminants in that CH4 would destroy any generator in short order.
Basically you would be paying more to either clean up the CH4 or maintain the generator than the generator could produce in electricity.

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 25, 2019 8:58 am

Another Paul

One possibility for turning gas into electricity without an engine (mechanical process) is the thermoelectric generator. I understand there has been a breakthrough technology developed with a five fold increase in efficiency that will hit the market in about three years. This means at a system efficiency comparable with a diesel gen-set (35%).

Burning flare gas is a trivial task. Getting a TEG hot is another. At 35% conversion, engine driven gen-sets are history.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 5:01 pm

All long chain hydrocarbons pumped from the ground start out as methane, so CH4 is oil,although I don’t want a pony or a unicorn, I just want to feed the hundreds of ponies in my SUV.

CH4 is natural gas and we can even use it to power cars. We have so much, it ends up being flared off and wasted, rather than being compressed and sold as LNG to Japan or even being turned into electricity with small natural gas powered generators at the well heads.

Would a turbine driving a generator (or a fuel cell) running on the natural gas leaving a typical well head produce more electricity than a windmill occupying the same footprint?

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 9:40 am

Abiotic methane is clearly produced by geological processes. Methane is not oil, but it is a valuable source of low entropy Carbon. Some biological processes produce methane, others consume it. Kinda like CO2. Both bass akwards and bass forward.

Like volcanic CO2, the extent of abiotic methane production is unknown. Current estimates have error margins in orders of magnitude.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 24, 2019 10:39 am

When organic matter is broken down by anaerobic bacteria, mathane is produced. When organic matter is broken down by heat a different pathway is followed.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 25, 2019 12:44 pm

Yes, decomposition by heat is different. The problem is how to get complex organics deep enough and fast enough to be anaerobically decomposed by heat before they’ve already been decomposed by bacteria into CO2, H2O and/or CH4.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 25, 2019 1:58 pm


Can you resolve the issue I brought up with Mark?

The hypothesis that geologic processes can do this has a problem which is that the amount of time it takes to get surface biomass deep enough to decompose by heat into long chain hydrocarbons is so long that the biomass would have been decomposed by bacteria eons earlier.

It also appears that the temperatures and pressures required to decompose complex organics into long chain hydrocarbons are not present in most of the places where oil and gas is found, but they do exist at greater depths which makes the problem even bigger.

To the extent that methane is being reformed into longer chain hydrocarbons, If it was bacteria, we would have already identified it in crude and put it to work elsewhere. I’m inclined to think it’s the consequence of temperature and pressure, possibly in combination with a naturally occurring catalytic agent. Similar reforming is done routinely in oil refineries.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 25, 2019 4:26 pm


Your answers to any question I ask are always so insufficient.

Please explain how biomass can get buried deep enough to be turned into long chain hydrocarbons in the Earth’s pressure cooker before that biomass is otherwise decomposed by bacteria? It needs to be buried km’s deep to be exposed to the necessary conditions and geologic processes are far too slow. Any biomass will be petrified before it gets to the proper conditions.

If you can’t provide an adequate answer, you need to acknowledge that the pressure cooker in the Earth’s crust most likely reforms hydrocarbons into longer chain molecules by adding energy and does not crack longer chain hydrocarbons into shorter ones releasing energy in the process.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 29, 2019 4:27 pm


My point is that it took so many millions of years for that sediment to be buried, it would have been decomposed by bacteria into methane and/or been fossilized long before it cold have been decomposed by heat and pressure to directly become long chain hydrocarbons which were then cracked into successively shorter chain hydrocarbons.

My point still stands that unless you can explain how dead biomass remained sterile for the millions of years it took before it was buried deep enough to be cooked directly into long chain hydrocarbons, my hypothesis that long chain hydrocarbons are mostly produced by reforming short chain hydrocarbons into long chain hydrocarbons, starting from subducted methane ices (or even abiotic methane), is a more viable alternative.

As for the difference between dry gas and wet gas or oil, in dry gas, the methane was never subjected to the required temperature and pressures required to form the longer chain hydrocarbons found in wet gas and/or oil.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 30, 2019 3:26 pm


Anaerobic decomposition whose ultimate byproducts are CO2 and CH4 is ubiquitous in nature. Most of the biomass that falls to the bottom of the ocean decomposes like this, forming CH4/CO2/H2O ices many of which are ultimately subducted by tectonics. The large amount of CO2 in some gas wells also points to decomposition as playing a substantial role in producing CH4. It also seems that most land biomass that was not completely decomposed ended up as coal, while oil and gas seems to have originated from oceanic biomass since coal lacks enough Hydrogen to be cooked into oil and gas by nature.

If thermal cracking was the predominate mode of breaking down long chain hydrocarbons in oil deposits, why are there so few alkenes (carbon chains with double bonds) in crude? Thermal cracking should produce a lot of them.

You said that Norphlet was full of unoxidized carbon (biomass), but I can’t find a reference indicating the form this comes in, except as fossils and shells. I doubt that any of it is in the form of undigested organics like sugars, amino acids and proteins, or even cellulose or coal.

What I did find indicates that most of the carbon in Norphlet is in the form of carbonates, mostly calcium carbonate. If it was carbonates that were converted’ into oil, I would expect to see far more calcium and other metals in crude. Of course, carbonates generally don’t decompose except at very high temperatures.

I understand how the conventional theory of oil formation arose, I’m just saying that there’s a lot about how this happens we still don’t know for sure. Looking through the literature, there are many assumptions and expectations regarding this theory, which at this point I think is still only a hypothesis. We probably know more about how the climate operates and we know how wrong this has become…

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 30, 2019 4:39 pm


Consider this as an alternative hypothesis:

Subduction drags decomposed oceanic biomass as methane ices to depths well below 30km where conditions allow the water as steam plus the methane to be reformed into CO and H2. Now, the raw materials for FT synthesis are in place along with the required temperatures and pressures for synthesis to proceed. Commonly occurring metals like like iron and cobalt are catalysts for the FT process reducing the temperatures and pressures required as well as varying the relative concentrations of products.

From deep underground, pressure pushes the synthesized hydrocarbons up through permeable and/or fractured rock until it’s trapped by a geologic formation that has also trapped other ancient biomass contaminating the relatively pure oil and gas formed much deeper with unrefined biological carbon.

Since subduction zones are associated with significant amounts of uplifted and folded rock, there are many formations created than can trap hydrocarbons produced at much deeper depths.

This hypothesis does make a testable prediction which is that we should find oil and gas at depths below 30 km and it should be relatively ‘clean’ compared to that found at shallower depths. Since subduction occurs at a faster rate than biomass being buried under dirt, it should also be ‘newer’ then expected based on the depth alone.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
April 23, 2019 4:31 pm

Yes, CH4 is not uncommon in the Solar System.

I hypothesize that the origin of petroleum is naturally occuring CH4. But rather than being “cooked into longer chain hydrocarbons,” it is processed by organisms, resulting in the known chirality of petroleum.

Any abiotic theory of oil must explain chirality, a very high bar to clear.

Reply to  Gamecock
April 24, 2019 10:09 pm

Nobody ever said oil is abiotic. Methane can be abiotic. Thomas Gold hypothesized that microbes turn methane into oil. He points out that many major oil regions are situated above deep fracture zones. The biological reprocessing will explain both the chirality and the isotopic fractionation in favor of light Carbon.

Not saying we take this to the bank. Just saying it may be premature to write it off entirely.

Jan Hemmer
Reply to  Gordon Lehman
April 26, 2019 9:46 am

Having read Golds book, I do not remember him saying microbes turn methane into oil.
Gold assumes hydrocarbons to be already present in the primordial earth and in doing so excludes the concept of too high surface temperatures during the formation of earth.
The ascending abiotic hydrocarbons, rising from great depths, serve as food and energy source for the archea in the last tens of kilometers of the crust and so are “contaminated” with molecules only seen in living matter.

Reply to  Gamecock
April 25, 2019 1:16 pm

Which hydrocarbons in crude oil have chirality issues that need to be explained?

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 23, 2019 10:36 pm

Also take a look at
http://martinhovland.weebly.com/mars.html and note that there is also likely abiotic oil seeping to the surface on Mars.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 24, 2019 8:57 am

The evidence is weak

Still, more robust than the evidence supporting CAGW.

April 23, 2019 2:56 pm

Genuine question: what should I take from Thomas Gold –The Deep Hot Biosphere.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 4:17 pm

Pretty pathetic. Thanks.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 26, 2019 8:38 am

If I have the choice of 1) natural substance produced by microbes deep in the earth and 2) the remains of prehistoric plants and animals which somehow forced their way downwards through the earths crust I will pick 1) on simple plausibility alone.
Until something better comes along.

Jan Hemmer
Reply to  Matt
April 24, 2019 1:01 pm

When you take the time to read it, you will see for yourself.
The most convincing part for me is the way he explains the evolution of the first forms of life.
Before life was able to use the relatively huge energy of a photon in the visible spectrum, it relied for a billion or more years on a metered supply of chemical energy. Gold hypothesizes that abiotic hydrocarbons formed at at depth of 150 Km under tremendous pressure and high temperatures were that source of energy. As an astrophysicist he was well aware of the fact that hydrocarbons are found abundantly on the bodies in our solar system. And he was astonished that all terrestrial hydrocarbons were considered biogenic.
Thirty years after his book, which should have been named “The Origin Of Life”, a lot of his predictions have come true. Like the current willingness to consider at least part of our hydrocarbons as being abiotic, or the discovery of a a vast underground realm of life – the archaea.

April 23, 2019 2:57 pm

When I built my house, heating oil was 16p a litre.
18 years later its 47p a litre.

What counts is how much it costs, and how much it costs is almost all related to EROEI.
Peak oil is related to EROEI as higher costs lower oil demand vis a vis other technologies. Eventually a nuclear power station and a heat pump will be cheaper than oil. In fact its close already.

It doesn’t matter how much oil is in the ground or where it comes from. What counts is how much energy it takes to get out versus how much is in it after its extracted. EROEI.

Once EROEI of – say – nuclear power is less, the oil and sales into electricity markets will collapse.
If it gets even MORE expensive than people will switch everything possible to electricity rather than oil and gas.

If it gets even more expensive than that they will synthesise oil using nuclear power.

At some stage global oil production will peak. Its not really that interesting where when or what size that peak is. Faced with a finite resource – or at least one being generated much slower than its extracted – that is inevitable.

Malthus was right, peak oilers were right, in principle. Just not yet. It will happen and it must happen, but we are adept at kicking the can down the road.

Peak coal appears to maybe have happened or be about right now.

Peak Horse was probably about 1900

*shrug* we exploit resources. Eventually the game is not worth the candle and we move on to another resource.

Or we die.

Nothing is renewable, nothing is sustainable.

Phil R
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 6:08 pm

You may not see this, but just curious…in light of the stupid Paris Agreement, why are you using French? (/sarc, just in case).

Phil R
Reply to  David Middleton
April 25, 2019 4:54 am

Never seen? I’ve never even heard of it.

Reply to  Leo Smith
April 23, 2019 3:35 pm

The price of anything is limited by the cost of acquiring that anything. A portion of that cost is EROEI, but only a portion.

mike the morlock
Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 8:46 pm

David Middleton April 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm

David there are many ways to offset cost.
Some oil will cost X some will cost Y I cold go on.
Because all Oil is treated the same for purchasing you are correct.
I am not fighting I like the present system, but at some point C.O.G. S. comes into play.
Location very. Also I think think that refining and production are two different animals.
Just my un-educated view

And I mean the last.


Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 10:43 am

David, that’s why I said “limited”.
Maybe bounded would have been a better word.

Reply to  MarkW
April 24, 2019 2:49 am

No, price is set by value to the buyer, the fundamental point that Marx missed and which debunks Marxism. The price of something that costs $100 to make could be $1 or $1 million. A painting say.

Where energy gets interesting is that you have to use energy to get it so it intuitively feels like you shouldn’t use an amount to get less than that amount.

Robert W. Turner
Reply to  Leo Smith
April 23, 2019 4:14 pm

Inflation, regulation, and tax. Oh and environmental terrorists.

Paul Penrose
Reply to  Leo Smith
April 24, 2019 9:38 am

Since oil and gas are not only used as energy sources, but are also used as feed stock into many commercial processes and as lubricants, EROEI is not a limiting factor. Something that only produces power, like a windmill, solar panel, or nuclear power plant is subject to EROEI only on an industry wide basis, not necessarily on a case to case basis.

April 23, 2019 3:12 pm

Part Trois will address the real(ish) nature of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) and its Seinfeldian position among irrelevant things.

Its close cousin, EROI, is a matter of vigorous debate for photovoltaics. link It reminds me of a joke.

A lawyer, an engineer and a mathematician were called in for a test. The engineer went in first and was asked, “What is 2+2?” The engineer thought awhile and finally answered, “4.” Then the mathemetician was called in and was asked the same question. With little thought he replied, “4.0” Then the lawyer was called in, and was asked the same question. The lawyer answered even quicker than the mathematician, “What do you want it to be?” link

Reply to  commieBob
April 23, 2019 3:39 pm

An engineer and a scientist were placed at opposite ends of a long hall.
Precisely in the middle was a beautiful woman.
The engineer and the scientist were told that each time the bell rang, they could go halfway towards the woman.
The bell rings and the engineer moves, the scientist doesn’t.
The bell rings again and the engineer moves yet still the scientist doesn’t.
After this happens a third time the engineer called out to scientist to ask why he hasn’t moved.
The scientist responds that since he can only go halfway each time, he’ll never be able to reach the woman.
The engineer thinks on that and responds back, “That is true, but eventually the difference gets so small that it no longer matters”.

James Beaver
Reply to  MarkW
April 23, 2019 4:16 pm


Engineers take liberties with the math than a rigorous mathematician can’t get away with.
Electrical engineers discard entire classes of solutions to differential equations because we need to get an answer that works within the real world environment of the components we actually have, not a complete Proof of a mathematical theorem.

Thus, if “halfway” becomes skin-to-skin, that’s fine by me too. It’s a real world solution that works.

Reply to  James Beaver
April 23, 2019 4:57 pm

So do physicists as a matter of fact. I remember that in “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” Feynman points out that many physical laws actually yield two solutions, one running forward in time and one running backwards, but that we routinely ignore the backward-running one since we know by experience that things only happen forwards in the real world.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  MarkW
April 23, 2019 4:49 pm

Which reinforces my remark about engineers being concerned about the practicality of real world measurements and their precision.

Ron Long
Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 6:20 pm

There is actually truth to Davids jest. When I worked for CONOCO Minerals we were told that the company had a project Minimum Acceptable Value, where a lower value, even if producing a high Rate Of Return, actually generated too much overhead and distracted the company from real opportunities. So we mineral exploration geologists started with a minimum deposit size that produced the Minimum Acceptable Value, and calculated the block target size for proposed drill sites accordingly, with no respect to actual geological parameters.

Phil R
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 6:15 pm

I don’t understand any of that, and I’m a geologist (not petroleum, maybe that reflects badly on me), but +42. 🙂

Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 6:51 pm

“The engineer went first and was asked, “What is 2+2?” The engineer plugged the numbers into a volumetric analysis spreadsheet and finally answered, “4.0”.”

An EE would say 2+2=4 and that it is (float) 2+2 that give 4.0 !

Outside C programming, my teachers would have given a fail for not respecting Significance Arithmetic.

And as usual, your articles are very instructive for the non geophysicist like us!

Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 12:52 am

A physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician check into the same hotel, each are given similar type rooms, each go to sleep for the night, and in the middle of the night each wake up to fires in their respective rooms (apparently the hotel was a firetrap).

Upon seeing the fire, the physicist calculates exactly how much water it will take to put out the fire, draws precisely that amount from the bathroom faucet into a glass, pours the water on the fire, the fire goes out, and goes back to sleep.

Upon seeing the fire, the engineer calculates exactly how much water it will take to put out the fire, draws precisely twice that amount from the bathroom faucet into a glass, pours the water on the fire, the fire goes out, and goes back to sleep.

Upon seeing the fire, the mathematician calculates exactly how much water it will take to put out the fire, and goes back to sleep saying, “Ahhh, there is a solution.”


Reply to  Jim Masterson
April 24, 2019 5:08 am

A well known Judo champion, Jouve, woke up to see a fire across the road at Notre Dame de Grace in Provence a week after Paris fire, and quickly saved the church using the holy water fonts.

The other three guests at the hotel went back to sleep.

dan no longer in CA
Reply to  Jim Masterson
April 24, 2019 10:13 am

I’m an engineer and if I woke up to a fire in my room, I wouldn’t calculate anything. I would put water on the fire until it stopped burning.

Reply to  dan no longer in CA
April 24, 2019 4:29 pm

So I guess you missed the point that it was supposed to be a joke. It also shows how physicists, engineers, and mathematicians differ slightly in the manner that they deal with problems.


Clyde Spencer
Reply to  commieBob
April 23, 2019 4:46 pm

I think that you got the response from the engineer and mathematician mixed up. Engineers are concerned about precision, hence 4. is different from 4.0 in their world. Mathematicians are used to working with exact numbers and generally don’t pay much attention to significant figures; thus, they would most likely respond exactly four.

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
April 23, 2019 5:02 pm

In the original, now obsolete, version of the story the engineer took out his slide-rule, fiddled with it for a while and then answered “about 3.9”.

Reply to  tty
April 24, 2019 7:44 pm

Obsolete? So am I, I guess.

FWIW, the joke in the version posted here had them doing addition. Slide rules don’t do addition (well, they do addition of logarithms). So the original version must have had them doing 2*2.

Reply to  M
April 26, 2019 5:16 am

I could add just fine on my sliderule using the “L” scale (logarithm). I never did in “real life” because it was quicker to do it on paper or in my head.

April 23, 2019 3:12 pm

I don’t believe in abiotic oil. However, I realize there is much to learn. This means I am not dogmatic, thus I will not flat out dismiss the idea. History is replete with things we things we thought were true only to be proven wrong. Some of these things even made sense scientifically and observationally. The truly wise are willing to be proven wrong.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 9:05 pm

Ought to point out that it is not irrelevant from an exploration point of view. Unlike gulf coast, the source to reservoir path is frequently quite localized, clear cut and geochemically well correlated. Rather than just looking for traps, exploration involves finding the mature source and following the migration routes. Lacustrine source rocks of the paleogene rift basins of Indonesia are a good example.

As is finding source rock and fracking the heck out of it of course.
Thanks for the nice write-up.

Reply to  Wade
April 23, 2019 3:42 pm

It’s not a matter of belief. Abiotic oil exists. The main problem with discussion on the topic is the conflation of abiotic oil existing and claims that abiotic oil generation is a rapid process that “refills” oil fields in human timescales, which was always something of a peculiar idea. Seductive, but peculiar nonetheless.

David has approached the discussion from a very different direction to the one I was expecting and I’m glad he did, because it’s not the usual arrogant dismissal of the entire idea, but rather a serious discussion of each element. It was educational. I find I largely agree with his conclusion: In the end, it doesn’t matter where the oil comes from.

I still personally believe we’re going to end up finding a lot of oil in places where current theory says it shouldn’t be found, but I think I’ll leave the practicalities of that up to the engineers.

(Though I do think we should build a pipeline to Titan. Maybe some sort of giant rubber hose…)

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 4:52 pm

Seriously? 🙂

Johann Wundersamer
Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 8:14 pm

Seriously, David ?

R Shearer
Reply to  Archer
April 23, 2019 4:29 pm

I wonder how big that hose would get once you started filling it with methane being as how space is a vacuum, and it would have to be quite slack and flexible to accommodate planetary motion. Maybe a high speed train with tank cars would be a better idea.

John F. Hultquist
Reply to  R Shearer
April 23, 2019 7:48 pm

I saw a low speed train of shiny new black tank cars last week.
About a mile long — quite impressive, but empty.
In central Washington State, headed east toward . . . ?

Reply to  John F. Hultquist
April 24, 2019 2:19 am

Maybe they’re transporting unicorn farts.

Michael C. Roberts
Reply to  John F. Hultquist
April 24, 2019 11:12 am

John – I see similar processions of black-painted oil train cars, running both north and south along Puget Sound at least twice a week (my daily commute location takes me within 30′ of the tracks in one area). It is my estimation that they supply the refineries of Anacortes, Ferndale, and potentially some in Western Canada; sounds like a worthy research project, if for no other reason than to figure out where they are delivering their ‘goods’. I also see open-top coal cars on occasion (less recently than in the past); as this Once-Great-State of Washington has only one operating coal-fired power generation plant remaining and it lies far to the south of my location, this commodity must either be headed for a rail-head for offshore export, or again up to the Great White North. Sorry for the side-track, just a bit of curious exploration on local events!



dan no longer in CA
Reply to  R Shearer
April 24, 2019 10:21 am

That hose would also need to be rated for high temperature for when Titan goes into opposition. 🙂

Reply to  Archer
April 26, 2019 1:06 pm

(Though I do think we should build a pipeline to Titan. Maybe some sort of giant rubber hose…)</blockquote

I know it was a joke, but now you have me scratching my head wondering how it could be done. 🙂 I believe that no matter how high the price the price of gasoline-at-the-pump, there will never be an economic Rate Of Return on such a pipeline.

BTW, in the vein of the-stone-age-didn't-end-because-we-ran-out-of-stone, I can't imagine why or how the follow-on to a hydrocarbon-powered ICE would be the technological step backwards to battery-carrying electric cars. Electric cars will become likely only if every roadway includes a power strip that will inductively power a vehicle. More possible would be a mini-reactor of some sort. Just like the men writing books about New York City streets buried under nine feet (or whatever it was) of horse manure did/could not imagine a means of conveyance powered by anything other than a horse, we cannot picture what means of propulsion can move our future vehicles. But, I suspect it will be a HC ICE for many years to come, electric vehicles, even hybrids, will remain an elitist virtue signaling niche market.

Cyrus P Stell
Reply to  Red94ViperRT10
April 26, 2019 1:08 pm

C**p! I missed a keystroke!

April 23, 2019 3:27 pm

I found the abiotic process interesting as how it may possiblyrelate to hydrocarbons found on other planets.

April 23, 2019 3:29 pm

“COULD it be that many of the world’s oil fields are refilling themselves at nearly the same rate they are being drained by an energy-hungry world?”

Why couldn’t the reservoir be partially refilled from the same existing oil that is in the general vicinity, and is just flowing into the vacated area being pumped out over time? If this is what is happening, then we should be able to go back to to the same oil wells in 50 years, and pump out another batch of accumulated oil. Maybe will need another good fracking. This would make more sense than an explanation of abiotic oil. If abiotic oil was really happening, then why doesn’t it happen in all rock formations, not just sedimentary basins? I am not a geologist, but my skeptic meter starts beeping when some think oil is both the product of long dead organics (algae etc) and coming from the deep crust, at the same place. Doesn’t add up to me. 25-30 years ago, I thought maybe the Russians were onto something when these theories were being presented, but it doesn’t make as much sense anymore when you think about it.

Reply to  Earthling2
April 25, 2019 12:00 am

“If abiotic oil was really happening, then why doesn’t it happen in all rock formations, not just sedimentary basins? ”

Sedimentary basins provide the rock types and structural settings suitable for traps/reservoirs for oil/gas/C02/water whether the hydrocarbons are of biogenic or abiotic origin. Even if abiotic oil was common it wouldn’t be found in other rocks; they don’t have enough pore space, they’ve been too highly metamorphosed [heated and /or sheared] etc.

So even if abiotic oil was common it would be found in the same locations as biogenic [if that’s what it is] oil.

April 23, 2019 3:36 pm

Thanks, David Middleton, for two highly interesting and informative article. I am looking forward to part three.
Belief in biotic oil or abiotic oil seems to be partly based on inner religious conviction.

Mike Graebner
Reply to  David Middleton
April 23, 2019 5:08 pm

Are you sure. Don’t you believe that you can do science?

Paul Penrose
Reply to  Mike Graebner
April 24, 2019 9:50 am

Science is a process that you follow to discover how the natural world works. I KNOW I can follow that process, no belief (as in faith) is necessary. Now, as to whether I personally can actually discover something new is an unknown. You are free to speculate, however.

Phil R
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 6:26 pm

Not to get too philosophical, but part of my interest in science was piqued by a teacher in a high school science class in the mid-1970’s. I can’t remember the exact subject, but I asked him (not sure if it was appropriate for me to assume his gender) if he believed something. He gave me an answer that was uncannily similar to yours. Stuck with me ever since. Thanks for the reminder.

Michael S. Kelly LS BSA, Ret
April 23, 2019 4:03 pm

Is there any oil migration modeling effort equivalent to the climate modeling’s community? I suspect there is, but am not aware of it.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Michael S. Kelly LS BSA, Ret
April 24, 2019 11:17 am

If there are, I very much doubt people would share. A good model would be worth billions if not trillions of dollars to the owner.

R Shearer
April 23, 2019 4:06 pm

The Fischer Tropsch process makes very good candle wax and diesel. If AOC gets her way, we may need candles and peak horse manure may be in our future, not past.

April 23, 2019 4:17 pm

Very interesting, question, with all of the chinning up of the material in
the Earths billions of years history, how can we say what is of biological
and what is directly made from material closer to the core.

Say two billion years ago there was life of some sort in the vast seas, then as
it died, the remains sank to the sea floor. Then it was over millions of
years drawn down to hotter parts and Cooked. So is this biological or none biological oil.

As to the refilling of the oilfields, well are the now empty ? fields ever
checked to see if they are refilling ?

So in the long run, i.e. billions of years all such material is renewable, its
just that by our short human lifetimes we say that they are empty.

So in the Greenies odd minds, with their thing about renewable sources of
energy, will this change their objections to the use of fossil fuel.

No way, they will if they talk about it at all, simply say its still killing the

Hopefully long before the easy extraction of oil is reached, we will have
nuclear with safeguards in place to make them 100 % safe. Then we can
use the oil for all of the good things in it without burning it.

One final question, why do we have coal in its solid form, I would think that
it too would have turned into oil. There has to be some connection between
coal and oil, or how come the Germans turned their coal into liquid fuel
during WW2 ?.


Curious George
April 23, 2019 5:05 pm

David, thank you for an extremely interesting article. The part about carbon-13 got my attention: an abiotic oil should have the same percentage of C13 as diamonds. I was surprised that there are apparently not only “abiotic” diamonds but also diamonds from an organic material that got really deep in subduction zones. A second surprise came from a Wikipedia article on diamonds: “Populations of diamonds from different sources have distributions of δ13C that vary markedly. Peridotitic [abiotic] diamonds are mostly within the typical mantle range [-8 to -2]; eclogitic [biotic] diamonds have values from −40 to +3, although the peak of the distribution is in the mantle range.”

My impression: The percentage of carbon-13 is useless as an indicator of biotic/abiotic origin of diamonds. Maybe of hydrocarbons as well?

Donald Kasper
April 23, 2019 10:19 pm

You get organic breakdown quickly in supercritical fluid conditions (>374 C), and get it much slower at burial deposition temperatures of 150 C. This is not news. Oil formation from organic degradation is not temperature-pressure point, but a curve of temperature and pressure versus time.

Rod Evans
April 24, 2019 12:39 am

As John Clees would likely say as he gets out of his 1100 cc Faulty Tower oil well, that refuses to deliver.
” Right that’s it! I have told you before…I am going to give you a damn good fracking”
There is always a solution, we just have to find it.

Lars P.
April 24, 2019 1:00 am

“The cumulative oil production at the end of 1995 was only a bit over 340 million bbl. Even if you count the gas, it was only 608 million BOE (barrels oil equivalent).”

Well that’s almost half of the BOE production coming from gas, and I assume mostly Methane, does this not imply that Abiotic Gas does matter in the overall hydrocarbons balance?
Most plastics are done from gas if I correctly remember, gas is used for cooking, heating, energy generation and many more (even transportation).

I understand the post is focusing on oil but I have the feeling it gives the false impression that all hydrocarbons are of biological origin.
Of course life being based on carbon (something that nowadays does not seem to be learned in schools) it used lots of carbon in the process, especially carbon found in the form of CO2, recycling it in the process.
However, as we see in the solar system hydrocarbons are pretty common and methane sources on Earth have been widely underestimated, methane clathrate being one of the relative recent additions to the overall resources, therefore I think there is something to the ‘Abiotic Oil’ paradigm, even if it implies ‘only’ Methane?

Julian Flood
April 24, 2019 1:45 am

Observation: Abeam Portugal to just short of Madeira I found a smooth — an area of obvious oil pollution — robust enough to resist a Force 4 wind. At first I assumed that this was oil spill from the Med which is an extremely polluted body of water, but the surface flows go in to that sea, not out.

When the article states that only trace amounts of light oil come out of the Lost City, how much is a trace? Grams? Litres? Tonnes?

I can’t see an obvious source for the Azores smooth as my guess is that New York and eastern seaboard oil spills — all cities pour out enormous amounts of light oil — would be oxidised by the time it got to the observation area.

Can anyone help?

One wonders what the effect on the Azores High would be of a huge smooth parked on it every time a burst of pollution, however caused, suppressed plankton growth, cloud formation and lower albedo warming.

Julian Flood
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 3:08 am

Thanks. The amount of light oil needed to make a huge smooth is extremely small — Benjamin Franklin found about 5ml smoothed a couple of acres. Google Clapham Pond London B F.


April 24, 2019 3:27 am

Maybe we need to get back to simpler times when ships actually sailed the seas, when ocean mammals and penguins were rendered down to provide all the oils we needed. When whale bones were the plastics of the day, when polar bears, seals and walruses provided us with warm waterproof clothing material.

April 24, 2019 4:56 am

The “abiotic” – “biotic” question is central to modern science, since Pasteur. To an engineer this may not matter, even if he is actually living.
To a scientist like Einstein, the most incomprehensible idea is that the universe is comprehensible. That natural belief underlies all engineering, and the oil exploration field. Without that belief neither science nor oil exploration would ever happen.
To avoid the biotic is to deny the comprehensibility of life, which this planet teems with. Seems to be the prevailing paradigm….

John Endicott
April 24, 2019 5:20 am

The carbon in “abiotic oil” must be inorganic

While I know what you are trying to say there (that the carbon isn’t sourced from “living” things), I can’t help but point out that if it’s got carbon it’s by definition not inorganic.

relating to or denoting compounds which are not organic (broadly, compounds not containing carbon).

April 24, 2019 6:39 am

Looking forward to Part Trois.

Have petro geologists considered the possibility that the source for some “abiotic” oil & gas be organic rich sediments plunged into subduction zones by plate tectonics? Heat & pressure in subduction zones is sufficient to convert organics to crude & gas. Presumably, a pathway could be created and sustained.

Roger Clague
Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 10:06 am


With the exception of methane, heavier hydrocarbon molecules of higher chemical potentials are not generated spontaneously in the low-pressure regime of methane synthesis.(ii) All hydrocarbon molecules other than methane are high-pressure polymorphs of the H–C system and evolve spontaneously only at high pressures, greater than at least 25 kbar even under the most favorable circumstances.(iii) Contrary to experience of refinery operations conducted at low pressures, heavier alkanes are not unstable and do not necessarily decompose at elevated temperatures. Contrarily,at high pressures, methane transforms into the heavier alkanes,and the transformation processes are enhanced by elevated temperature

Reply to  David Middleton
April 24, 2019 11:52 am

I absolutely love these kinds of graphics!

“The geothermal gradient is highly variable. Water and halite (salt) are less dense than most rocks. When the overburden consists of 8,000’ of seawater and 2,000’ of halite”

Halite, i.e. salts; deposited by ancient or primordial seas.

Proof that climate change is eternal!

Plus, those halite domes trap usable hydrocarbons so efficiently and allowing humans to tap them.

Reply to  David Middleton
April 25, 2019 5:18 am

Many TYs for replying & informing.

April 24, 2019 10:06 am

I knew I was onto a good thing when I chose Abiogenesis as my Nom De Plume, elsewhere in the Aether. Quintessentially, it’s “My Abiotic Oil”.

James F. Evans
April 24, 2019 11:32 am

Truth matters for its own sake. We keep running into oil at greater depths & higher temperatures and in greater quantities than ever predicted by so-called “fossil fuel” theory.

Abiotic oil theory has chemical pathways that can be demonstrated in the laboratory. while “fossil fuel” theory does not.

In my opinion the best evidence currently available is that the Earth is a hydrocarbon planet (probably essential to the formation of life on this planet). Abiotic oil theory is the best explanation for the abundance of hydrocarbons on this planet.

I do not suggest that hydrocarbons are unlimited rather I do suggest that there is more oil & natural gas than predicted by “fossil fuel” theory/

April 24, 2019 11:47 am

Good article,David!


“The carbon in “abiotic oil” must be inorganic.”

What!? How does that fit into organic chemistry? It certainly doesn’t go into inorganic chemistry.

I am reminded when a friend was really pushing a “green” and “environment” friendly epoxy resin made from plants.
He was crushed when I pointed out that it required rigorous organic chemistry refinement to be made into an epoxy resin. His allegedly green environment friendly product was no different from any other epoxy and that all his “natural” sourcing did was require a more involved and more expensive process for a product identical to epoxies derived from oil/natural gas.

I am all for harvesting methane and other related light petroleum products throughout our solar system.
I’m also willing to believe that mantle heat and pressure processes convert carbon products into petroleum products, including methane.
Mantle processes that work on geological time scales. Over millions of years new oil reservoirs will accrete and aquifers replenish.

I am not holding my breath, and it is still organic chemistry.

James F. Evans
April 24, 2019 10:14 pm

Mr. Middleton, your schematics, that you have presented twice here in the last few comments is one of the better visual representations of evidence of abiotic oil. There is a debate on temperature & pressure and the varied geological formations that oil & gas can be found in.

I appreciate the scientific papers you present and cite. There are many more scientific papers that provide evidence for abiotic oil..

I agree with others here who support or subscribe to abiotic oil.

In my opinion the evidence for abiotic oil theory is of greater weight than fossil theory.

James F. Evans
Reply to  David Middleton
April 25, 2019 7:25 am

Depends on your definition of “oil window” in terms of temperature. When the so-called ” oil window” corollary of your hypothesis was first put forth it was generally assumed that around 150 degrees F was the upper limit — why? because as you state (paraphrase) “That’s where the bit hit the oil/” But as technology improved they have hit oil under high pressure. greater depths, and as you state so yourself at higher temperatures.

In other words, they changed the “theory” to fit the facts at the drill tip.

Generally. the deeper the oil deposit the higher the temperature.

Especially under those deep salt deposits in the Gulf of Mexico.

James F. Evans
Reply to  David Middleton
April 25, 2019 10:21 am

“Tabular salt acts like a radiator. It conducts heat away from the substrata toward the surface. The combination of thick layers of salt and deep water depths enable oil to exist at depths previously unexpected. Salt and water are also less dense than most other overburden. This enables reservoir quality rocks to exist at deeper depths than previously expected.”

Read “previously unexpected” & “than previously expected” as: the oil was found in geologic settings that violate the “oil window”.

I appreciate the diagram from 1994 based on 1987, but the so-called “oil window” idea has been around a lot longer than that,what the 1940’s ? even earlier?

I suggest before deep oil wells, that is before a lot of off shore drilling where the deepest oil wells are drilled, when land drilling was relatively shallow the “oil window” was narrower.

And assuming salt is a radiator then as you state it is draining heat away from the oil then necessarily the oil is gaining heat from somewhere else. Yes, great pressure will keep oil from disassociating into its constituent parts even when it is under significant heat.

But according to your hypothesis oil wouldn’t form in the first place.

April 26, 2019 5:40 pm

Among other measurements, the team analysed the amount of carbon-13 in methane, which contains one carbon atom, and in hydrocarbons containing two, three, and four carbon atoms. As the number of carbon atoms rose, the concentration of carbon-13 fell — the opposite trend to that seen in biologically derived hydrocarbons.

Instead, the pattern of isotopes suggest that a chemical process called the Fischer-Tropsch process is at work in Lost City, creating bigger and bigger hydrocarbons in the hydrogen-rich environment. Although the concentrations were too low to detect without a filter, small amounts of larger hydrocarbons such as kerosene and octane may also be produced.
The team also found that the methane in Lost City contained no carbon-14, suggesting the carbon source for the hydrocarbons comes from within the mantle, far away from organisms that might have had contact with the global carbon cycle at the surface.

Hold it! Wasn’t the entire claim that we humans were burning more carbon based fuels than nature could absorb? This excess carbon was claimed to be of C13 origin from oil and methane drilled from biotic based hydrocarbons, versus C14.

IF C13 is being naturally emitted by the earth itself in an abiotic process then their proof is no longer proof.

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