abiotic oil : Richard Heinberg’s perspective


Richard Moore


The "Abiotic Oil" Controversy

by Richard Heinberg 

No. 150 - August 2004 - Part 2 

In recent months a few of the many web sites that challenge
the official account of the events of 9/11/2001 have also
attacked the idea of peak oil. I would prefer to ignore this
controversy - and there are good reasons for doing so, as some
of these web sites lack credibility on other counts;
nevertheless, as these sites are magnets for large numbers of
people who are just beginning to find their way out of the
consensus societal trance, they appear to be doing some
palpable harm. I have received at least a couple of dozen
e-mails from sincere people wanting to know my response to
claims that "peak oil" is a scam, and that oil is actually an
inexhaustible resource.

So, once and for all, here is my take on the abiotic oil

The Gist of the Situation

The debate over oil's origin has been going on since the 19th
century. From the start, there were those who contended that
oil is primordial - that it dates back to Earth's origin - or
that it is made through an inorganic process, while others
argued that it was produced from the decay of living organisms
(primarily oceanic plankton) that proliferated millions of
years ago during relatively brief periods of global warming
and were buried under ocean sediment in fortuitous

During the latter half of the 20th century, with advances in
geophysics and geochemistry, the vast majority of scientists
lined up on the side of the biotic theory. A small group of
mostly Russian scientists - but including a tiny handful
Western scientists, among them the late Cornell University
physicist Thomas Gold - have held out for an abiotic (also
called abiogenic or inorganic) theory. While some of the
Russians appear to regard Gold as a plagiarist of their ideas,
the latter's book The Deep Hot Biosphere (1998) stirred
considerable controversy among the public on the questions of
where oil comes from and how much of it there is. Gold argued
that hydrocarbons existed at the time of the solar system's
formation, and are known to be abundant on other planets
(Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and some of their moons) where no
life is presumed to have flourished in the past.

The abiotic theory holds that there must therefore be nearly
limitless pools of liquid primordial hydrocarbons at great
depths on Earth, pools that slowly replenish the reservoirs
that conventional oil drillers tap.

Meanwhile, however, the oil companies have used the biotic
theory as the practical basis for their successful exploration
efforts over the past few decades. If there are in fact vast
untapped deep pools of hydrocarbons refilling the reservoirs
that oil producers drill into, it appears to make little
difference to actual production, as tens of thousands of oil
and gas fields around the world are observed to deplete, and
refilling (which is indeed very rarely observed) is not
occurring at a commercially significant scale or rate except
in one minor and controversial instance discussed below.

The abiotic theorists also hold that conventional drillers,
constrained by an incorrect theory, ignore many sites where
deep, primordial pools of oil accumulate; if only they would
drill in the right places, they would discover much more oil
than they are finding now. However, the tests of this claim
are so far inconclusive: the best-documented "abiotic" test
well was a commercial failure.

Thus even if the abiotic theory does eventually prove to be
partially or wholly scientifically valid (and that is a rather
big "if"), it might have little or no practical consequence in
terms of oil depletion and the imminent global oil production

That is the situation in a nutshell, as I understand it, and
it is probably as much information as most readers will need
or want on this subject. However, as this summary contradicts
some of the more ambitious claims of the abiotic theorists, it
may be helpful to present in more detail some of the evidence
and arguments on both sides of the debate.

Oil at the Core?

Gold is right: there are hydrocarbons on other planets, even
in deep space. Why shouldn't we expect to find primordial
hydrocarbons on Earth?

This is a question whose answer is only partly understood, and
it is a complicated one. The planets known to have primordial
hydrocarbons (mostly in the form of methane, the simplest
hydrocarbon) lie in the further reaches of the solar system;
there is little evidence of primordial hydrocarbons on the
rocky inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). On the
latter, possibly the hydrocarbons either volatized and escaped
into space early in the history of the solar system, or - as
Gold theorizes - they migrated to the inner depths. (Note:
very recent evidence of methane in the atmosphere of Mars is
being viewed as evidence of biological activity, probably in
the distant past. (1))

There is indeed evidence for deep methane on Earth: it vents
from the mid-oceanic ridges, presumably arising from the
mantle, though the amount vented is relatively small - less
than the amount emitted annually in cow farts (incidentally,
there are persuasive biotic explanations for the origin of
this vented methane).

A new study by the US Department of Energy and Lawrence
Livermore Lab. suggests that there may be huge methane
deposits in Earth's mantle, 60 to 120 miles deep. (2)But today
oil companies are capable of drilling only as deep as six
miles, and this in sedimentary rock; in igneous and
metamorphic rock, drill bits have so far penetrated only two
miles. (3) In any attempt to drill to a depth remotely
approaching the mantle, well casings would be thoroughly
crushed and melted by the pressures and temperatures
encountered along the way. Moreover, the DOE study attributes
the methane deposits it hypothesizes to an origin different
from the one Gold described.

More to the point, Gold also claimed the existence of liquid
hydrocarbons - oil - at great depths. But there is a problem
with this: the temperatures at depths below about 15,000 feet
are high enough (above 275°F) to break hydrocarbon bonds. What
remains after these molecular bonds are severed is methane,
whose molecule contains only a single carbon atom. For
petroleum geologists this is not just a matter of theory, but
of repeated and sometimes costly experience: they speak of an
oil "window" that exists from roughly 7,500 feet to 15,000
feet, within which temperatures are appropriate for oil
formation; look far outside the window, and you will most
likely come up with a dry hole or, at best, natural gas only.
The rare exceptions serve to prove the rule: they are
invariably associated with strata that are rapidly (in
geological terms) migrating upward or downward. (4)

The conventional theory of petroleum formation connects oil
with the process of sedimentation. And, indeed, nearly all of
the oil that has been discovered over the past
century-and-a-half is associated with sedimentary rocks. On
the other hand, it isn't difficult to find rocks that once
existed at great depths where, according the theories of Gold
and the Russians, conditions should have been perfect for
abiotic oil formation or the accumulation of primordial
petroleum - but such rocks typically contain no traces of
hydrocarbons. In the very rare instances where small amounts
of hydrocarbons are seen in igneous or metamorphic rocks, the
latter are invariably found near hydrocarbon-bearing
sedimentary rocks, and the hydrocarbons in both types of rock
contain identical biomarkers (more on that subject below); the
simplest explanation in those cases is that the hydrocarbons
migrated from the sedimentary rocks to the igneous-metamorphic

Years ago Thomas Gold recognized that the best test of the
abiotic theory would be to drill into the crystalline basement
rock underlying later sedimentary accumulations to see if
there is indeed oil there. He persuaded the government of
Sweden in 1988 to drill 4.5 miles down into granite that had
been fractured by a meteorite strike (the fracturing is what
permitted drillers to go so deep). The borehole, which cost
millions to drill, yielded 80 barrels of oil. Even though the
project (briefly re-started in 1991) was a commercial failure,
Gold maintained that his ideas had been vindicated. Most
geologists remained skeptical, however, suggesting that the
recovered oil likely came from drilling mud.

The Russians (I must remind the reader that I am actually
talking about a minority even with the community of Russian
geologists) claim successes in drilling in basement rock in
the Dnieper-Donets Basin in the Ukraine. Professor Vladilen A.
Krayushkin, Chairman of the Department of Petroleum
Exploration, Institute of Geological Sciences, Ukrainian
Academy of Sciences, Kiev, and leader of the exploration
project, wrote:

The eleven major and one giant oil and gas fields here
described have been discovered in a region which had, forty
years ago, been condemned as possessing no potential for
petroleum production. The exploration for these fields was
conducted entirely according to the perspective of the modern
Russian-Ukrainian theory of abyssal, abiotic petroleum
origins. The drilling which resulted in these discoveries was
extended purposely deep into the crystalline basement rock,
and it is in that basement where the greatest part of the
reserves exist. These reserves amount to at least 8,200 M
metric tons [65 billion barrels] of recoverable oil and 100 B
cubic meters of recoverable gas, and are thereby comparable to
those of the North Slope of Alaska. (5)

However, independent assessments of the situation do not
support these claims. First, the US Geological Survey does not
agree that the Dnieper-Donets reserves are that large (it
cites 2.7 billion barrels for total oil endowment). Second,
the appearance of oil in basement rocks is unusual but not
unheard of, and there are various ways in which oil can appear
in basement rock. In the process of drilling through overlying
sedimentary rock, oil can be expelled downward so that it
appears to come from below. Then there are situations where
igneous or metamorphic rocks have migrated upward, or
sedimentary rocks have migrated downward, so that basement
rock covers sedimentary rock (in some cases, the overthrust
may be hundreds of square kilometers in extent). In his paper
"Oil Production from Basement Reservoirs - Examples from USA
and Venezuela," Tako Koning of Texaco Angola, Inc., cites
source rocks such as marine shales in nearly all instances.
(6) More to the point, numerous studies cite the existence of
sedimentary source rocks in the Dneiper-Donets region. (7)

Refilling Fields?

Abiotic theorists often point out evidence of fields
refilling. The most-cited example is Eugene Island, the tip of
a mostly submerged mountain that lies approximately 80 miles
off of the coast of Louisiana. Here is the story as related by
Chris Bennett in his article "Sustainable Oil?" on

A significant reservoir of crude oil was discovered nearby in
the late '60s, and by 1970, a platform named Eugene 330 was
busily producing about 15,000 barrels a day of high-quality
crude oil. By the late '80s, the platform's production had
slipped to less than 4,000 barrels per day, and was considered
pumped out. Done. Suddenly, in 1990, production soared back to
15,000 barrels a day, and the reserves which had been
estimated at 60 million barrels in the '70s, were recalculated
at 400 million barrels. Interestingly, the measured geological
age of the new oil was quantifiably different than the oil
pumped in the '70s. Analysis of seismic recordings revealed
the presence of a "deep fault" at the base of the Eugene
Island reservoir which was gushing up a river of oil from some
deeper and previously unknown source. (8)

A "river of oil" from an unassociated deep source? This does
sound promising. But closer examination yields more prosaic
descriptions and explanations.

According to David S. Holland, et al., in Search and
Discovery, the reservoir is characterized by

1. Structural features dominated by growth faults, salt domes,
and salt-related faulting.

2. Thick accumulations of predominantly deltaic deposits of
alternating sand and shale.

3. Young reservoirs (less than 2.5 m.y. old) with migrated
hydrocarbons whose origins are in deeper, organic-rich marine

4. Rapidly changing stratigraphy, due to deposition and
subsequent reworking.

5. Numerous oil and gas fields with stacked reservoirs, long
hydrocarbon columns, and high producing rates. (9)

While it is true that the estimated oil reserves of Eugene
have increased, the numbers are not extraordinary. The authors
note that "From 1978 to 1988, these operations, activities,
and natural factors [including better exploration and recovery
technology] have increased ultimate recoverable reserves from
225 million bbl to 307 million bbl of hydrocarbon liquids and
from 950 bcf to 1.65 tcf of gas." Other estimates now put the
estimate of total recoverable oil as high as 400 Mb.

None of this is especially unusual for a North American oil
field: most fields report reserve growth over time as a
consequence of Securities and Exchange Commission reporting
rules that require reserves to be booked yearly according to
what portion of the resource is actually able to be extracted
with current equipment in place. As more wells are drilled
into the same reservoir, the reserves "grow." Then, as they
are pumped out, reserves decline and production rates dwindle.
No magic there.

Production from Eugene Island had achieved 20,000 barrels per
day by 1989; by 1992 it had slipped to 15,000 b/d, but
recovered to reach a peak of 30,000 b/d in 1996. Production
from the reservoir has dropped steadily since then.

The evidence at Eugene Island suggests the existence of deep
source rocks from which the reservoir is indeed very slowly
refilling - but geologists working there do not hypothesize a
primordial origin for the oil. In "Oil and Gas - 'Renewable
Resources'?" Kathy Blanchard of PNL writes, "Recent
geochemical research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
has demonstrated that the wide range in composition of the
oils in different reservoirs of the Eugene Island 330 field
can be related to one another and to a deeper source rock of
Jurassic-Early Cretaceous age." (10) Her article explains that
this kind of migration from nearby source rocks is hardly
unique, and discusses it in the context of conventional biotic
theory. A technical paper by David S. Holland, et al., "Eugene
Island Block 330 Field - U.S.A. Offshore Louisiana," published
by AAPG, notes that the Eugene Island oils show

abundant evidence of long-distance vertical migration. Based
on a variety of biomarker and gasoline-range maturity
indicators, these oils are estimated to have been generated at
depths of 4572 to 4877 m (15,000 to 16,000 ft) at vitrinite
reflectance maturities of 0.08 to 1.0% and temperatures of 150
to 170°C (300 to 340°F). Their presence in shallow, thermally
immature reservoirs requires significant vertical migration.
This is illustrated on Figure 36, which represents a burial
and maturation history for the field at the time of petroleum
migration, that is, at the end of Trimosina "A" time
approximately 500,000 years ago. A plot of the present
measured maturity values versus depth is superimposed on the
calculated maturity profile for Trimosina "A" time to
illustrate the close agreement between measured and predicted
maturity profiles. The clear discrepancy between reservoir
maturity and oil maturity is striking and suggests that the
oil migrated more than 3650 m (12,000 ft) from a deep,
possibly upper Miocene, source facies. Petroleum migration
along faults is indicated based on the observed temperature
and hydrocarbon anomalies at the surface and the distribution
of pay in the subsurface. These results are consistent with
those of Young et al. (1977), who concluded that most Gulf of
Mexico oils originated 2438 to 3350 m (8000 to 11,000 ft)
deeper than their reservoirs, from source beds 5 to 9 million
years older than the reservoirs. (11)


The claims for the abiotic theory often seem overstated in
other ways. J. F. Kenney of Gas Resources Corporations,
Houston, Texas, who is one of the very few Western geologists
to argue for the abiotic theory, writes, "competent
physicists, chemists, chemical engineers and men knowledgeable
of thermodynamics have known that natural petroleum does not
evolve from biological materials since the last quarter of the
19th century." (12) Reading this sentence, one might assume
that only a few isolated troglodyte pseudoscientists would
still be living under the outworn and discredited
misconception that oil can be formed from biological
materials. However, in fact universities and oil companies are
staffed with thousands of "competent physicists, chemists,
chemical engineers and men [and women!] knowledgeable of
thermodynamics" who not only subscribe to the biogenic theory,
but use it every day as the basis for successful oil
exploration. And laboratory experiments have shown repeatedly
that petroleum is in fact produced from organic matter under
the conditions to which it is assumed to have been subjected
over geological time. The situation is actually the reverse of
the one Kenny implies: most geologists assume that the Russian
abiotic oil hypothesis, which dates to the era prior to the
advent of modern plate tectonics theory, is an anachronism.
Tectonic movements are now known to be able to radically
reshuffle rock strata, leaving younger sedimentary oil- or
gas-bearing rock beneath basement rock, leading in some cases
to the appearance that oil has its source in Precambrian
crystalline basement, when this is not actually the case.

Geologists trace the source of the carbon in hydrocarbons
through analysis of its isotopic balance. Natural carbon is
nearly all isotope 12, with 1.11 percent being isotope 13.
Organic material, however, usually contains less C-13, because
photosynthesis in plants preferentially selects C-12 over
C-13. Oil and natural gas typically show a C-12 to C-13 ratio
similar to that of the biological materials from which they
are assumed to have originated. The C-12 to C-13 ratio is a
generally observed property of petroleum and is predicted by
the biotic theory; it is not merely an occasional aberration.

In addition, oil typically contains biomarkers - porphyrins,
isoprenoids, pristane, phytane, cholestane, terpines, and
clorins - which are related to biochemicals such as
chlorophyll and hemoglobin. The chemical fingerprint of oil
assumed to have been formed from, for example, algae is
different from that of oil formed from plankton. Thus
geochemists can (and routinely do) use biomarkers to trace oil
samples to specific source rocks.

Abiotic theorists hypothesize that oil picks up its chemical
biomarkers through contamination from bacteria living deep in
the Earth's crust (Gold's "deep, hot biosphere") or from other
buried bio-remnants. However, the observed correspondences
between biomarkers and source materials are not haphazard, but
instead systematic and predictable on the basis of the biotic
theory. For example, biomarkers in source rock can be linked
with the depositional environment; that is, source rocks with
biomarkers characteristic of land plants are found only in
terrestrial and shallow marine sediments, while petroleum
biomarkers associated with marine organisms are found only in
marine sediments.

The Bottom Line

The points discussed above represent a mere sampling of the
issues; it would be difficult if not impossible for me to
address all of the arguments put forward by the abiotic
theorists in a brief essay of this nature. I circulated a
draft of this essay on two energy-related email newsgroups and
received about a dozen thoughtful comments, one defending the
abiotic theory but most of the others critiquing it. About
half of the comments were from physicists, geophysicists, or
geologists. It quickly became apparent to me that a
book-length treatment of the subject is called for.

J. F. Kenney has put forward a succinct and persuasive paper
arguing for the abiotic theory (5), but there is no
prominently published rebuttal piece that systematically
discusses or attempts to refute his assertions. A reader of
Kenney's web site might find fault with some of my statements
in this essay (for example, as a counter to my description of
the depth "window" of oil formation, a reader might refer to
Kenney's discussion of Russian experiments that have shown
that oil can be formed at high temperatures and high pressures
- conditions similar to those that must exist in the 's
mantle). Yet among the draft comments I received from
scientists were convincing criticisms of Kenney's claims
(returning to my example: even if oil were formed in the
mantle, as more than one commenter pointed out, abiotic
theorists have suggested no plausible means by which it could
rise to the depths at which we find it without passing through
intermediary regions in which the temperature would be too
high and pressure too low for liquid hydrocarbons to survive).
Many other assertions made by Kenney and critiqued by the
experts are more technical in nature and more difficult to

So, rather than continuing along these lines, I would prefer
now to pull back from a focus on details and again emphasize
the bigger picture.

There is no way to conclusively prove that no petroleum is of
abiotic origin. Science is an ongoing search for truth, and
theories are continually being altered or scrapped as new
evidence appears. However, the assertion that all oil is
abiotic requires extraordinary support, because it must
overcome abundant evidence, already cited, to tie specific oil
accumulations to specific biological origins through a chain
of well-understood processes that have been demonstrated, in
principle, under laboratory conditions.

Now, I like scientific mavericks; I tend to cheer for the
underdog. Peak oil is itself a maverick idea, and for the past
several years I have been promoting a view that the Wall
Street Journal recently described as "crackpot." (14) So I
feel a bit unaccustomed and even uncomfortable now to be on
the side of the scientific "establishment" in arguing against
the abiotic oil theorists. The latter certainly deserve their
day in the court of scientific debate.

Perhaps one day there will be general agreement that at least
some oil is indeed abiotic. Maybe there are indeed deep
methane belts twenty miles below the Earth's surface. But the
important question to keep in mind is: What are the practical
consequences of this discussion now for the problem of global
oil depletion?

I have not personally inspected the oil wells in Saudi Arabia
or even those in Texas. But nearly every credible report that
I have seen - whether from the industry or from an independent
scientist - describes essentially the same reality:
discoveries are declining, and have been since the 1960s.
Spare production capacity is practically gone. And the old,
super-giant oil fields that the world depends upon for the
majority of its production are nearing or past their all-time
production peaks. Not even the Russian fields cited by the
abiotic theorists as evidence for their views are immune: in
June the head of Russia's Federal Energy Agency said that
production for 2005 is likely to remain flat or even drop,
while other officials in that country have said that growth in
Russian production cannot be sustained for more than another
few years. (15)

What if oil were in fact virtually inexhaustible - would this
be good news? Not in my view. It is my opinion that the
discovery of oil was the greatest tragedy (in terms of its
long-term consequences) in human history. Finding a limitless
supply of oil might forestall nasty price increases and
catastrophic withdrawal symptoms, but it would only exacerbate
all of the other problems that flow from oil dependency - our
use of it to accelerate the extraction of all other resources,
the venting of C0 2into the atmosphere, and related problems
such as loss of biodiversity. Oil depletion is bad news, but
it is no worse than that of oil abundance.

Given the ongoing runup in global petroleum prices, the notion
of peak oil hardly needs defending these days. We are seeing
the phenomenon unfold before our eyes as one nation after
another moves from the column of "oil " to that of "oil
importers" (Great Britain made the leap this year). At some
point in the very near future the remaining nations in column
A will simply be unable to supply all of the nations in column

In short, the global energy crisis is coming upon us very
quickly, so that more time spent debating highly speculative
theories can only distract us from exploring, and applying
ourselves to, the practical strategies that might preserve
more of nature, culture, and human life under the conditions
that are rapidly developing.


1. See New Scientist

2. www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-09/dlnl-mid091304.php

3. http://wow.osu.edu/Geology/ebmf.htm

4. See Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak , pp. 21-22, 171;
Walter Youngquist, Geodestinies, p. 114.

5. www.gasresources.net/energy_resources.htm

6. www.dur.ac.uk/react.res/RRG_web/hydrocarbons_meet.htm

7. www.911-strike.com/pfeiffer.htm (link expired; click on

8. www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=38645

9. #20003, 1999,

10. www.pnl.gov/er_news/08_95/er_news/oil1.kb.html

11. www.datapages.com/97015/eugene.htm

12. See footnote 9.

13. www.giss.nasa.gov/gpol/abstracts/1997/FungFieldB.html

14. "As Prices Soar, Doomsayers Provoke Debate on Oil's
Future," 9/21/2004

15. www.mosnews.com/money/2004/06/17/oilproduction.shtml

Richard Heinberg is the author of Powerdown: Options and
Actions for a Post-Carbon World and T he Party's Over: Oil,
War and the Fate of Industrial Societies ; he is a Core
Faculty member of New College of California in Santa Rosa.



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