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.

[…]


Nature

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.

[…]


MBARI

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


Hydrothermal oil of Guaymas Basin and implications for petroleum formation mechanisms

BORYS M. DIDYK* & BERND R. T. SIMONEIT†

*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.

Nature

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.

References

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

  1. 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.

    • I think the “interest” largely stems from a belief that petroleum geology is a conspiracy to maintain high oil prices.

      • Kinda like De Beers and diamonds…doh! 🙂

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

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

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

    • 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.

        • 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?

          • “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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • “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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

        • 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?

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • Mark,
            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.

          • David,

            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.

          • David,

            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.

          • Please explain how biomass can get buried deep enough…

            In the Gulf of Mexico, the Jurassic age Norphlet formation was deposited at the Earth’s surface as sand dunes about 150-155 million years ago. It’s now at depths ranging from 20,000′ to probably more than 50,000′. It is overlain by layers sedimentary rocks and sediments ranging from the Jurassic to the Holocene. How do you think it got buried that deep under thousands of feet of younger sediments?

            The Norphlet is productive in shallow water (less than 100′) in the Mobile Bay area at a depth of about 22,000′. It is dry gas, the reservoir temperatures are around 400 °F.

            About 100 miles south of Mobile Bay, Norphlet oil pay was recently discovered by Shell in ultra-deepwater (>7,000′) in the Mississippi Canyon area at a depth of about 29,000′. The reservoir temperatures are around 250-280 °F.

            The reservoir pressures are comparable.

            What’s the difference between dry gas and oil?

          • David,

            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.

          • There was no oxidation of the organic matter because it’s still there. Source rocks were deposited under anoxic conditions in restricted circulation marine and lacustrine environments. That’s why they are clustered in specific geologic time periods.

            Maybe you missed this… Oil cracks at high temperatures. That’s why it hasn’t been found in rocks over about 300 °F.

            The Smackover formation was deposited over the Norphlet sand dunes. It was deposited in a restricted marine environment. It is loaded with un-oxidized organic matter (total organic carbon >5%). It is both the source rock and seal for the Norphlet oil and gas fields. The Mobile Bay Norphlet gas used to be oil. Millions of years at temperatures above 300 °F cracked the oil. In deepwater, the geothermal gradient is a bit different. While at a comparable depth below the seafloor, the Norphlet is only about 250 °F and it’s still oil.

            The conventional theory of oil formation was derived from the observations.

          • David,

            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…

          • Most of the biomass that falls to the bottom of the ocean decomposes like this…

            Not under anoxic conditions (hypoxia).

            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?

            Crude oil hasn’t been cracked. It’s cracked in the refinery process by heating it. Or cracked naturally into methane and graphite by heating it at temperatures above 300 F for millions of years.

            Heating does not cause simple hydrocarbons to form complex hydrocarbons. It has the opposite effect, both in the Earth and in refineries.

            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.

            No. I said the Smackover is full of un-oxidized organic matter. Smackover mudstones were deposited over the Norphlet sand dunes. The Smackover algal-rich carbonate mudstones were deposited in a low energy restricted circulation marine environment. The Smackover is self-sourced and also the source rock for much of the oil in the Gulf Coast and Gulf of Mexico. The Norphlet is generally only productive where the Smackover lacks porosity, because the oil fills the available pour space in the Smackover before charging other reservoirs.

            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…

            We know that oil cracks when subjected to temperatures above 300 F for an extended period of time. This is why reservoir rocks with temperatures above 300 F only produce dry gas. We know that diamondoids are the product of the thermal destruction of crude oil. We know that the minimal volume of condensate associated with Mobile Bay Norphlet gas fields is almost entirely composed of diamondoids. The conventional theory explains ALL of the observations and predicted that the Norphlet would be oil-prone in deepwater.

            This doesn’t mean that the theory absolutely right. There are many unknowns and many things that are likely unknowable.

          • David,

            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.

          • The Gulf of Mexico isn’t associated with a subduction zone… Nor are the vast majority of oil producing basins.

      • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.

      • Hebes Chasma is a collapsed regolith… A Karst-like feature. Adams et al conclude that the substrata was a mixture of “salts, water ice, and basaltic tephra.” Martin Jackson’s model of the collapse of the regolith was based on salt tectonic principles.

        the “Oil Spill” (Fig. 4C), was interpretedby Ori et al. (2005) as a low-viscosity lava flow; however, a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Context Camera image shows that the braided channels are smooth ridges and that the terminal deposit has a feather edge that grades into the surrounding, paler surface. We interpret the Oil Spill as particulates (basaltic tephra?) derived from LHF and entrained in aqueous springs along fracture zones. Dark material may have accumulated in the Oil Spill channels as water evaporated.
        http://geomorphology.sese.asu.edu/Papers/Adams_etal_hebes_chasma_salt_tectonics_geol.pdf

        One of Adams’ coauthors was the late Martin Jackson, who was the top expert on salt tectonics.
        From Ori et al., 2005…

        The same area has been imaged during the Viking mission nearly 25 years before (Figure 4). The dark feature appears not to have undergone any noticeable changes from the Viking era in term of both albedo and morphology…

        This rules out an active oil seep or any other active process.

        More from Ori…

        The overall morphology of the dark feature clearly indicates that some material has been removed from the area upslope, carried along the slope and deposited on an inclined bottom. However, the morphology also suggests that the despositional process was a near viscous flow…

        […]

        Based on the morphology of the dark feature, its location on a slope, and its resistance
        to exogenic modification we think it is more probable that it has been emplaced by a low-viscosity lava flow.
        http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2005/pdf/1648.pdf

        No one will know what the Mars “Oil Spill” actually is until a sample of it is physically examined.

          • 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.

          • Those aren’t the choices and nothing “forced [its] way downwards through the earths crust”.

            How did sand dunes, deposited on land at the Earth’s surface during the Late Jurassic Period wind up 22,000′ beneath the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, buried under 22,000′ of sedimentary rocks and sediments deposited from the Late Jurassic Period through the Holocene Epoch?

            The Norphlet sand dunes are still recognizable as sand dunes 150 million years after they were deposited and buried by Smackover marls.

    • 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.

  2. 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.

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

        • Hot Shots, Part Deux… It might be the the only stupid comedy movie I’ve never seen.

          • It’s always a good idea to keep at least a few classic movies “in reserve.” I’ve watched Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Blazing Saddles, etc. dozens, if not hundreds, of times. I’m saving Hot Shots, Part Deux… Call it conservation of stupid comedy movies.

            Even though I’m a huge Charlton Heston fan, I had never seen Ben Hur until a couple of Easters ago… and it really was one of the greatest movies ever made.

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

        • 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.

          michael

          • It’s pretty simple. We don’t get to set the price of oil based on our cost to produce it.

      • 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.

        • The thing is that I could “spend” 2 million Btu of natural gas to produce 1 million Btu of oil and generate a 2:1 return on capital.

          This will be one of the themes of my EROEI post.

    • 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.

  3. 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

    • 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”.

      • Brilliant.

        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.

        • 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.

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

    • A geologist, an engineer and a geophysicist were asked to solve the same equation.

      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”.

      Then the geophysicist was called on and was asked the same question. With little thought he replied, “Depending on the velocities, somewhere between 3 and 5, but we’ll need to run a check shot survey to verify.”

      Then the geologist was called on, and was asked the same question. He quickly answered, “How big do you need it to be?”

      • 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.

        • Pete Rose (not that Pete Rose) and other mathematically inclined geologists and reservoir engineers developed probabilistic methods of estimating resource potential and reserves in order to get around the “human element” (deterministic methods).

          Now, instead of producing a most likely resource potential estimate, we produce maximum and minimum estimates and get the most likely value from a probability distribution.

          Then we check that against the deterministic most likely estimate to make sure it’s realistic.

          Very Dilbertish… 😎

      • “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!

      • 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.”

        Jim

        • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.

            Jim

    • commieBob
      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.

      • 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”.

        • These jokes are like Aggie and various ethnic group jokes… The story-line is interchangeable.

        • 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.

          • 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.

  4. 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.

      • 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.

        • Even in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s essential to at least identify a pathway to source rocks in undrilled minibasins.

          In frontier areas it is also essential to identify source rocks as part of the total petroleum system.

    • 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…)

      • 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.

        • 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 . . . ?

          • 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!

            Regards,

            MCR

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

      • (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.

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

    • I doubt that the methane and ethane on Titan formed by the same process as at Lost City. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Titan is made of methane.

      The cool thing about Titan (and Pluto) is that many of the geologic processes appear to be similar to Earth, but the raw materials are very different… like methane sand dunes.

  6. “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.

    • “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.

  7. 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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
    Earth.

    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 ?.

    MJE VK5ELL

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. “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?

    • No. The gas is also sourced from organic-rich sedimentary rocks. The oil, gas and water (brine) appear to originate from at least 3 distinct sources. See Losh et al., 2002.

      Even if the gas was abiotic, it wouldn’t matter for the same reason it doesn’t matter with the oil.

  15. 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?

    JF
    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.

  16. 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.
    /sarc-off

  17. 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….

  18. 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.

    in·or·gan·ic
    ADJECTIVE
    2.
    chemistry
    relating to or denoting compounds which are not organic (broadly, compounds not containing carbon).

    • Inorganic carbon

      Inorganic carbon is carbon extracted from ores and minerals, as opposed to organic carbon found in nature through plants and living things. Some examples of inorganic carbon are carbon oxides such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; polyatomic ions, cyanide, cyanate, thiocyanate, carbonate and carbide in carbon. Carbon is an element that is unique to itself. Carbon forms strong single, double and triple bonds, therefore it would take more energy to break these bonds than if carbon were to bond to another element.

      Inorganic carbon compounds generally don’t have a H-C bond.

      Organic carbon compounds generally, but not always, have at least one H-C bond.

  19. 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.

    • The problem is that crude oil can’t withstand temperatures above about 300 °F for an extended period of time (10’s of thousands to millions of years). There are no oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico with bottom hole temperatures outside of the oil window. The ultra-deepwater Lower Tertiary oil discoveries are well within the oil window. The shallow water Lower Tertiary gas discovery at Davy Jones is well out of the oil window, but in the gas window… and has never produced anything.


      The depths on the chart are approximations based on a generalized geothermal gradient. 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, 30,000’ of overburden weighs a lot less than it does when it’s all composed of more dense rocks.

      The ultra-deepwater Lower Tertiary play in the Gulf of Mexico and the deep subsalt plays offshore Brazil are often cited as examples of abiotic oil because the reservoirs are supposedly too deep, too hot and/or too highly pressured to be in the oil window. This is simply wrong.

      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.

      I’ve drilled wells deeper than 20,000’ in the Gulf of Mexico. The bottom hole temperatures were in the range of 215°F (100°C). Ten wells in the Gulf of Mexico, drilled to true vertical depths greater than 20,000’ have each produced more than 20 million barrels of oil. The maximum bottom hole temperature (213°F) was encountered in the Mississippi Canyon (MC) 777 TF001 well, drilled by BP. The average bottom hole temperature of those ten 20 million barrel producers was 197°F.

      Shell is in the process of developing a very large Jurassic Norphlet oil discovery in deepwater. The bottomhole temperatures are around 280 °F. The nearest previous Norphlet production is in shallow water in the Mobile Bay area. This is relatively dry natural gas. The bottomhole temperatures are around 400 °F.

      It’s possible that crude oil-like substances can form at higher temperatures… however, producible volumes of oil haven’t been found below the oil window… And a lot of wells have been drilled below the oil window.

      • https://www.scribd.com/document/4653767/Abiotic-Oil-J-F-Kenney

        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

        • Contrary to experience of refinery operations conducted at low pressures, heavier alkanes are not unstable and do not necessarily decompose at elevated temperatures.

          Then… Where are they? They sure aren’t found in the thousands of wells drilled below the oil window.

      • 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.

  20. 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”.

  21. 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/

    • No. We don’t keep running into oil at higher temperatures.

      Crude oil can’t withstand temperatures above about 300 °F for an extended period of time (10’s of thousands to millions of years). There are no oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico with bottom hole temperatures outside of the oil window. The ultra-deepwater Lower Tertiary oil discoveries are well within the oil window. The shallow water Lower Tertiary gas discovery at Davy Jones is well out of the oil window, but in the gas window… and has never produced anything.


      The depths on the chart are approximations based on a generalized geothermal gradient. 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, 30,000’ of overburden weighs a lot less than it does when it’s all composed of more dense rocks.

      The ultra-deepwater Lower Tertiary play in the Gulf of Mexico and the deep subsalt plays offshore Brazil are often cited as examples of abiotic oil because the reservoirs are supposedly too deep, too hot and/or too highly pressured to be in the oil window. This is simply wrong.

      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.

      Shell is in the process of developing a very large Jurassic Norphlet oil discovery in deepwater. The bottomhole temperatures are around 280 °F. The nearest previous Norphlet production is in shallow water in the Mobile Bay area. This is relatively dry natural gas. The bottomhole temperatures are around 400 °F.

      The “fossil fuel” theory doesn’t predict any volume of hydrocarbons. There is no such theory.

      The generally accepted theory of petroleum formation is based on the observations from over 100 years of drilling oil wells. The theory doesn’t drive drilling, drilling drove the theory.

  22. Good article,David!

    Except:

    “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.

    • Inorganic carbon

      Inorganic carbon is carbon extracted from ores and minerals, as opposed to organic carbon found in nature through plants and living things. Some examples of inorganic carbon are carbon oxides such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; polyatomic ions, cyanide, cyanate, thiocyanate, carbonate and carbide in carbon. Carbon is an element that is unique to itself. Carbon forms strong single, double and triple bonds, therefore it would take more energy to break these bonds than if carbon were to bond to another element.

      Inorganic carbon compounds generally don’t have a H-C bond.

      Organic carbon compounds generally, but not always, have at least one H-C bond.

  23. 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.

    • How does the total lack of oil at temperatures higher than the oil window support abiotic oil?

      There is no “fossil theory”.

      • 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.

          • “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.

          • The oil window hasn’t moved, nor is it different offshore vs onshore. It is a function of temperature and pressure. Levorsen, the definitive petroleum geolgy textbook was published in 1957. A lot of things have changed since then, the oil window hasn’t. The image I posted was just the oldest one I could find on the Internet in a few minutes.

            We’ve been drilling subsalt wells since at least 1983. The radiator-like properties of salt have been known for a long time. The greatest obstacle to subsalt drilling was seismic imaging, which has tremendously improved over the past 20 years.

            The “unexpected” thing in offshore Brazil was the presence of reservoir quality rocks under the salt. They thought the pressures and temperatures would have been higher than they encountered. It wasn’t oil outside the oil window.

            The “unexpected” thing in the Gulf of Mexico Lower Tertiary play was the fact that it was Lower Tertiary. It wasn’t oil outside the oil window. They thought they were drilling a Cretaceous structure.

            Unexpected things happen quite often. That’s why it’s called exploration.

          • 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.

            Good fracking grief!

            The salt is why deep sub-salt reservoirs are 250-300 F rather than 400-500 F. The heat comes from the Earth’s interior. It flows upward. Some rocks transmit heat faster than others. Salt is one of those types of rocks. 250-300 F is still hot… It’s just not hot enough to crack the oil.

            If you want to understand more about salt, you can read this…

            https://www.slb.com/~/media/Files/resources/oilfield_review/ors08/aut08/the_prize_beneath_the_salt.pdf

            The late Martin Jackson was the world’s foremost expert on salt tectonics and Jerry Kapoor is one of the “pioneers” of subsalt seismic imaging.

  24. 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.

    • 13C is a “funny” thing.

      Automobile exhaust is depleted in 13C relative to the atmosphere.

      While thermogenic methane (most natural gas production) is enriched in 13C relative to biogenic methane.

      13C is a useful isotope, but not really diagnostic by itself.

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