The Source of Oil

To begin with, we can distinguish between animal and vegetable oil, and mineral oil. Every farmer knows what the sources of those first two kinds of oil are; and mineral oil comes out of the ground, out of all those rocks down there. Animal and vegetable oils can be eaten. They are essential for life. Many vitamins, and so on. On the other hand, I have certainly not tried the experiment of trying to eat mineral oil! I can hardly imagine that that would be a pleasant experience. It's probably poisonous!
    Both kinds of oil can be burned, but most people would say that it would be a great waste to burn those oils which are used in the kitchen. As far as lubrication is concerned, there is also a great difference. For example, if you tried to oil the key work of a flute, or of a lock, or a motor, then initially kitchen oils may lubricate things satisfactorily, but after some days they will begin to become rancid. They gum up, and soon the mechanism will will seize up all together. Kitchen oils are no good for lubrication. For that you need mineral oil.
    But of course, ultimately mineral oil is also an animal or vegetable oil, isn't it? The energy in mineral oil is the energy of sunlight, stored from the time way back there in geological history when the earth was a great swamp, in the carboniferous period, hundreds of millions of years ago. Thus the fact that we burn mineral oil in great quantities, as if there were no tomorrow, is a great waste of this unique, primitive, fossilized resource. It was created so long ago, and once it is all burned up, then it is gone. Forever.
    Such is the fate of the world's fossil fuel resources. Perhaps we have already reached the peak of oil production. We are using it all up, so obviously it will become more and more expensive in the future. We can see that this is happening already; the price of mineral oil has quadrupled in just the last seven years (I am writing this in the year 2007)! But this is a good thing. As the price goes up, people will burn less of it, thus putting less carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere, and so the effects of global warming will be less than they would otherwise be.

    Such is the conventional wisdom.

    But I see no reason to believe in the conventional wisdom if it doesn't make sense!

So who am I to question the conventional wisdom? Well, I'm certainly not a chemist, so I have no idea about the details concerning the molecular differences between one kind of oil and the next. I did have a smattering of geology as a first year student at the Australian National University in Canberra. When I started studying at the ANU in 1966, I really just wanted to study physics. There were a number of other people who had the same idea, and in the first year almost all of them took the combination of courses: physics, pure mathematics, applied mathematics, and chemistry. But for one reason or another, I substituted geology for the chemistry course.
    In those days, and presumably these days as well, geology was an important thing to study in Australia. After all, much of the wealth of Australia derives from the export of minerals. Therefore it is important to have well qualified people to travel around the country, looking for good things to dig, or pump, out of the earth. There must have been 60 or 70, or even more students in that first year geology course at the ANU. At the end of the year, I think large numbers of them failed. Luckily I did manage to scrape through, and that was the end of my geology studies. There were too many exams for my taste, learning the names of countless different kinds of rocks, peering through a microscope at thin slices of rock, using polarized light. And so forth. It seemed to me that in an ideal world it would be the simplest thing to just have the earth being composed of a solid block of homogeneous concrete. Then we could do away with all these different kinds of complicated rocks which had to be learned for the exams!
    For me, the most unpleasant part of geology was the excursions which the whole group took in order to look at the rocks in the field. We all got into a big diesel bus and were transported from one place to another. The diesel fumes and the motion of the bus made me feel sick. Then the various things pointed out to us had to be written down and memorized for the test at the end of the day. How unpleasant! There was also the weekend excursion, which involved a trip further afield, and camping out in tents. This should have been more interesting. A couple of Russian geologists were visiting the geology department of the ANU back then in 1966, and they came along on our excursion. On the Saturday night, as darkness settled on the camp and the campfire blazed, we students gathered around and spoke with the professors. One question and another. One student wanted to know what the professors thought about the theory of continental drift. After all, this idea was hardly new. Alfred Wegener proposed the theory more than 50 years before that time, in 1966. And our textbook, "Principles of Physical Geology", by Arthur Holmes, devoted a few pages to the theory. But our professors smiled knowingly. Don't waste your time on such speculative rubbish they told us! And the Russian professors of geology nodded their agreement in comfortable concurrence.
    I said nothing, and I learned what I was taught in order to get through the exams. But it was totally clear to me that it was their ideas concerning the basic principle underlying geology which were truly rubbish. All of the details about the fossils, or the chemical compositions of the rocks, such things were understood. But what is it that brings all these things into being? All the spectacular foldings of rock formations, the earthquakes along faults in the rocks, the rift valleys. In the lectures they were not very clear about the forces which were supposed to explain all of these things. Some talk about volcanoes causing upliftings and associated submersions here and there. Or maybe the primeval earth was hot, then in the process of cooling, it contracted, resulting in the surface becoming shriveled, as the skin of an apple shrivels when the apple dries out. Something like that. One might call this the "Atlantis Theory" of geological movement. This was the mainstream, accepted view in those days. If you wanted to get a job in geology, or even become a professor of geology, this is what you had to believe in. Alfred Wegener was a meteorologist, so he was not in the professional geological "mainstream". I once looked at a book which tackled the question of how it is that the fossils of tropical organisms are found in the rocks of Antarctica. The answer, according to this book, was that the entire crust of the earth moves rigidly, floating on the hot liquid rocks below. Thus, when there is an accumulation of mass near the poles, the centrifugal force of the earth's rotation causes the crust to slide around - as a whole - to a different position relative to the earth's rotation. And in fact, in a long foreword, the great physicist Albert Einstein wrote in the book that the theory seemed to him to be very sensible and plausible. So there you are! Didn't Albert Einstein ever see these large, strongly folded rock formations, showing anybody with eyes to see that the earth's crust is not at all rigid?

    Therefore, even if all the professional geologists of the world today say that all of the mineral oil of the world has a biological origin, I'm still not convinced. I think that any sensible person with a free mind to think about these things will agree that at least some of the mineral oil is truly mineral. After all, we now know that the whole of Jupiter's moon Titan is covered with methane and other "organic" compounds. Even if life were to be discovered on Titan, it seems hard to believe that all of this is of biological origin. Then we know that much of the material in the dust clouds of inter-stellar space is composed of "organic" material. How strange it would be if the present dogma of the professional geologists of the world were true, and all the mineral oil were to be exclusively of biological origin. So the question is really, what proportion of that oil is of biological origin, and what proportion is "abiotic"? (Geologists say that certain biological "markers" can be seen in mineral oil. But then recently it has been found that certain bacteria can live at great depths in the pores of the earths crust, perhaps eating some of the abiotic oil, and thus they might be marking this oil and confusing the geologists. The ratios of different isotopes are also quoted. But again, this argument has been shown to be questionable.) But how is it possible to form the organic substance, oil, without living organisms?

    Well, it is possible to make a viable substitute for mineral oil using the Fischer-Tropsch process, which can convert any old oil, or even wood or coal, into mineral oil. In order to do this, the substance being used is first heated in the absence of oxygen in order to obtain pure carbon. Thus the organic raw product is first heated to extract pure inorganic, black carbon. Next the carbon is combined with sufficient oxygen to produce carbon monoxide gas. Finally, this gas, together with hydrogen gas, is passed through a catalyzer to give an oil which is similar to mineral oil. The firm of Sasol in South Africa uses this process. Apparently they use coal as the raw material. Some utopian people experiment with the Fischer-Tropsch process, the goal being to obtain mineral oil from bio-mass, that is from the cuttings of plants, straw, and so on. There are immense technical problems involved in such a project, owing to the fact that everything gets gummed up when extracting the carbon, which is the true starting point of the process, from all the organic chemicals which are associated with that bio-mass.
    But in reality, almost all the mineral oil which we use comes from deep within the earth, as if it really were a mineral, not a vegetable product. Long, long ago, hundreds of millions of years ago (according to the conventional wisdom), there was a lot of organic activity at the surface of the earth, and all the dead stuff gradually became buried deep within the earth. During all the time between then and now, lots of it changed into coal (as we can see by observing that there are often fossils in coal deposits). Since coal is mostly carbon, I suppose the lighter parts were squeezed out of it, escaping and migrating upwards, towards the surface of the earth. Some of this migrating light stuff must have been trapped in the geological formations under Saudi Arabia, the Gulf of Mexico, and all those other places.
    But wait a minute! Isn't most coal right up at the surface of the earth, or at least not that far down? Why is it that the oil and natural gas is found so far down? After all, those oil wells are drilled thousands of feet down into bedrock!
    Perhaps the reason is that there were huge amounts of primeval matter hundreds of millions of years ago, which went way, way down to the depths of the earth, and when it was there, the oil and gas was squeezed out. But on the other hand, if the coal near the surface had its oil and gas squeezed out of it despite the fact that there was hardly any pressure up near the top, why was this deep primeval organic material able to descend way, way down, with the pressure building up all the time, and yet it still was able to keep its oil and gas intact, only to finally be released at great depth? That doesn't seem to make much sense!!
    And what about all the gases which are released by volcanoes?
    In fact, if you take the trouble to look it up, you will see that, besides water in the form of steam (that is to say, lots of hydrogen and oxygen), the main gases released in volcanoes are carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. So we certainly do have the raw materials for the Fischer-Tropsch process here, don't we? And it seems to me that all of that percolating through various minerals at high temperatures and pressures might be able to catalyze something!

    I hadn't really thought about these things before reading about them in the internet. Surely this question is of the greatest interest for the world these days! At the present time "we" - that is to say, the "Coalition of the Willing" - are invading one oil-producing country after another, causing immense suffering, for no other reason - apparently - than that of securing possession of the dwindling sources of the worlds mineral oil. Since we are rapidly running out of oil, the price of filling up the car increases dramatically. The price of a barrel of oil is at record levels. We have reached the situation of "Peak Oil"! That is to say, the production of oil is now at its peak, and since the supplies are dwindling, there will be less and less in the future, despite the fact that more and more people will want to have it.
    But hang on a minute! As you see, I am not the youngest person in the world since I started my university studies in 1966. And, seemingly in contrast to many people my age, I can still remember many of the things which were going on back in those days. Back then, we had the "Club of Rome", which was filled with very important people. I think there were lots of Nobel Prize winners in it. It was very serious. They were not only thinking about oil; they were thinking about all kinds of resources which humanity was going through at a frightening rate. The best minds in the world got together, using the best algorithms for calculating the numbers, and they showed beyond any possibility of doubt that the resources of the earth were running out. A table was published, showing the times in the future when the various resources would finally be finished. I've forgotten the details. It was like: iron in 1985, zinc in 1979, aluminum in 1982, and so on and so forth. Almost everything would be completely gone within 10 or 15 years. A few things would still be there to scratch out of the earth in 20 or 25 years, but hardly anything of any importance was in that category. Certainly not oil. And yet here we are, 35 years later, and the reality is that for years there has been a crisis in the countries which mainly live from exporting the basic resources of the earth. The crisis is not that they have run out, and so have nothing to sell! No. Quite the contrary. They have too much to sell, so the prices of all these raw materials have sunk down to rock bottom!
    But at least this is not the case with oil. So maybe the Club of Rome was a bit crazy with its predictions about all the other resources of the world, but they did seem to tip it right - if in a rather over-exaggerated way - when it came to oil. Didn't they? Or were they just as crazy about oil as they were about all the other things?
    To answer this question in a rational way, we should think about why the price of oil is so high these days, in contrast to the other raw materials which we use and which are extremely cheap. In the year 2000, before the presidency of George W. Bush, the price of oil was around about $20 per barrel or so, and everybody - or almost everybody - seemed happy. Now it has climbed to $80 per barrel! Iraq has been bombed to smithereens, but on the other hand, in the year 2000 there was an embargo on oil from Iraq, so in the balance of oil supply, there is hardly any change there. The other oil producing countries have agreed to pump more, so the supply has actually increased. The reasons given for the high price are that hardly any new refineries have been built by the oil companies and the old ones are breaking down, so that all this oil can't be used in the quantities which are available. Furthermore, Iran, which is also a major supplier, although it is supplying lots of oil onto the world market now, might - for one reason or another - be bombed to smithereens in the near future by the "Coalition of the Willing", and so its oil, like that of Iraq, will no longer be available. And then there is Saudi Arabia. Maybe it will become unstable and thus it will also be necessary to have it bombed to smithereens, so that all the oil there also will no longer be available. Then there is Venezuela. Maybe it will become "communist" (despite the fact that communism died out 15 years ago), and thus it might also need to be bombed to smithereens, so that all the oil there also will no longer be available. And so forth. And then there is the fact that Saudi oil is a bit "heavier" than some other oils, making it somewhat more difficult to refine, and thus it doesn't really count as being part of the true resource, does it?
    Am I being totally and irresponsibly cynical when I think that the price of oil is being artificially manipulated? Could it be that the true reason for invading all of these oil producing countries is not to be able to pump even more of it out of the ground for the benefit of the big oil companies, but rather to prevent it being pumped, so that the price remains high, and those companies happily go from one year of record profits to the next? This thought seems even more plausible when I read that the proven oil reserves (which can be pumped at about the cost of pumping oil at the present time - that is to say, almost zero) are sufficient to last for the next 40 years at the present level of world consumption. (There are almost arbitrarily many references for this statement, usually distorting it in one way or another for some sorts of "political" purposes in one direction or another. A rather randomly chosen reference is here, which seems to be a relatively neutral European forum for discussing such questions.) This is the reason that the oil companies are not wasting their money looking for new oil reserves at the present time. Finding still more oil would only weaken their case for "peak oil". It would be more difficult to generate the hysteria necessary to justify the high prices of oil, thus their high profits.

    Well, OK. Then recently, I read something, I think it was in the Guardian, where it was asserted that yes, there may be lots of oil, but that is not the true point. The limitation is not how much oil we can burn, but rather how much of this burning the earth can cope with. Thus, if you are willing to accept the thoughts I have written above, then you might say that even if the oil companies are acting in an irresponsible way, causing untold thousands, even millions of people to suffer horribly, to be killed, still it is a good thing, for then less oil will be burned off into the atmosphere.
    Leaving aside the morality, or lack of morality, of such a position, we seem to have come down to another theory. This time, the theory is not concerned with the causes of various geological phenomena within the earth. We are now concerned with the meteorological phenomena in the air above the earth. How helpful it would be if Alfred Wegener were here with us to discuss these things!
    What is it that causes the ice ages? Or the warm periods of the earth? Why were the canals of Amsterdam frozen when the great painters were painting these winter scenes in the 17th century? And nobody noticed any sun-spots during that period. Why was the earth so warm that lions and other African animals were roaming the plains of England a few thousand years ago? Perhaps the solar system was passing through a more or less dense cloud of cosmic dust. Who knows? Why is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increasing? Is it the burning of oil? Or is it the burning of tropical forests, so that they cannot re-absorb the carbon dioxide? How much is the ocean absorbing the carbon dioxide in solution, to be later made into carbon-rich coral reefs by all that coral? Or is the coral dying out? And what about the ozone hole? Or is that another story, having to do with refrigerators? What about the formation of clouds? Does more carbon dioxide increase the clouds, reflecting more of the heat from the sun away from the earth, or does it cause the clouds to reflect the warmth of the earth back to the earth, increasing the "greenhouse effect"? Could it be that if all those people in Brazil or Indonesia stop burning their forests and instead plant lots of trees, then suddenly huge amounts of carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere, we will have a general catastrophic drop in greenhouse gases, and all of this would lead to a sudden ice age? Who knows? I certainly don't know.
    It used to be said that the bad weather was caused by all of this testing of atomic bombs in the atmosphere. At least, thankfully, that effect has ceased for the time being. I also read - in a peer reviewed professional journal! - where a group of scientists asserted that the reason that most tornadoes twist in a counter-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere is that cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. Thus, as pairs of cars are constantly passing each other, they are each producing little micro-twists in a counter-clockwise direction, which all adds up, or something. I'm not sure if they showed that tornadoes over England, or Japan, where cars drive on the left, are clockwise. But I do remember that they said that their theory was supported by the fact that there are fewer tornadoes on Sundays, showing that the fact that fewer cars are driving on Sundays, thus producing fewer twists of the air, is relevant to the theory of tornadoes. It seemed to me, however, that a simpler explanation might be that the people who write down the occurrence of tornadoes might tend not to be at work on Sundays. Also, at least here in Germany, my observation is that all those people who are working on weekdays, and they are thus unable to drive their cars on those days, drive even more, and even faster, on Sundays, thus increasing the incidence of these micro-twists.
    I agree that smelly chemical factories are bad. And I also hate these people who put all their money into their stupid cars and drive them too fast. What is worse than a modern urban street, filled with loud cars and even louder trucks, filling the air with choking fumes? But things are getting better, even for the poor people who must live in these cities. The catastrophically dirty factories of eastern Europe have largely closed down, and the ones which remain often have filters in their chimneys. Almost all petrol cars have catalyzers, and now the diesel cars and trucks are gradually being forced to have filters. It is obvious to me that the air here in Germany has improved tremendously in the last 25 years. In 1975 when I first arrived here, there was often a smoggy haze in the air. Now I never notice smog. It's just the normal autumn and winter fog which gets us down. Sometimes the sunsets over north Germany are as clear as they are in Australia. On a cloudless winter night, the sky is filled with stars. So I am an optimist.
    Whatever the true situation is with oil, whether it is mostly of biological origin, or mostly abiotic, it seems to me to be difficult to imagine that natural gas has a biological origin. Does anybody seriously believe that it has been trapped in such fortuitous rock formations for hundreds of millions of years in the quantities we find it today? Think about Sumatra! A couple of years ago, we saw a huge earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, and this brings to mind the fact that in the middle of the island is perhaps the greatest volcano in the world, Toba, which blew up just 70,000 years ago, causing a crater which is 60 or 70 kilometers across! Yet Sumatra is one of the great oil producing, and especially natural gas producing regions of the earth! How can we imagine that such a geologically active region could have preserved such "fossil fuels" for so long?
    If we imagine that Toba blows up every 100,000 years or so, then it will have blown up thousands of times between the carboniferous age of geological time and today! How could the delicate structures trapping this natural gas have survived such inconceivable disruption? This idea simply stretches all credulity beyond any reasonable bounds. In fact, anybody who is prepared to take the trouble to think about it will realize that the idea is simply ridiculous! It is clear that not only helium, but lots of hydrogen as well is being formed by the radioactive decay of heavy elements deep within the earth. Such a volcanic region as Indonesia must owe its oil and gas reserves to this volcanic activity.
    In the end, all of this shows that there seem to be no grounds for panic when it comes to the sources of energy for our everyday lives. And it also shows that atomic energy is not only dangerous, highly polluting and much too expensive, but it is also totally unnecessary. Furthermore, heating with natural gas, or having a car propelled by LPG, produces hardly any pollution.
    What is the rate at which mineral oil and natural gas are being formed within the earth? Who knows. Maybe it is formed at the same rate at which it is being pumped out of the earth today. Or maybe it is only formed very slowly, so that after 100 or 200 years or so, the deposits will have been emptied, and the rate of refilling will be negligible. One way or another, surely a better solution would be for the world to convert gradually to solar power, using the energy of sunlight to produce hydrogen gas from water. That gas could then be used in the same way natural gas is used today.